Gulf Oil Spill
John Francis writes about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as millions of gallons of crude spill unabated into the waters.
Oil on the Water
A few days after the BP oilrig Deepwater Horizon, exploded, caught fire and started spewing black crude into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the emails and calls expressing sympathy started to come in. Not that I own stock in BP or lost a loved one in the disaster, but because my life had been changed by a much smaller spill back in 1971 when two Standard oil Tankers collided in the darkness near the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many people had already been sensitized by the Santa Barbara 1969 Union Oil oilrig blowout. No humans died but thousands of birds and other creatures did as nearly 3 million gallons of crude bubbled up from the ocean floor fouling 800 sq miles of ocean and 35 miles of beach. Its visibility started or added fuel to a fledgling environmental movement.
So when the oil spill from the two tankers in Golden Gate washed out to sea and then flooded back onto the Northern California shore, I was not surprised at the pain I felt in the center of my heart. Tears rolled down my face like the time I lost my favorite aunt to some mysterious disease.As I sat in my car watching, I could not help but to see the connection of my use of the automobile to what was unfolding in front of me. A few months later, to take some responsibility for the mess that washed up on the beach, I gave up the use of motorized vehicles and a few months after that to stop all the arguments with my friends about how one person is unable to make a difference, I just stopped talking. And thus began a twenty-two year walking pilgrimage as part of my education, to raise environmental consciousness and to be of service and benefit to the world.
For over seventeen of those years I walked in silence across the United States, working in small towns, studying at universities and listening to America speak. What I heard and what I learned convinced me that it was time to speak. So when I reached the East Coast, on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, 1990, in a hotel in Washington, DC, I started to speak.
I choose Earth Day because I wanted to remind myself that I was going to speak for the environment, and the environment for me had evolved from being only about pollution, loss of species, loss of habitat, climate change, and what we have grown to think of as traditional environmental issues. These are all important elements to be sure. But more importantly, if people are part of the environment, as we profess, then our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way, or even to understand what sustainability is, is in our relationship with ourselves, and each other. So for me, environment must include, human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic equity, and all the ways that we relate to one another, as how we treat ourselves and one another will surely manifest into the physical environment that we are a part.
My Ph.D. research was on “Oil Spills in the Marine Environment in the US and Caribbean: the Costs and Conventions.” Soon after receiving my degree, I went to work for the Coast Guard’s Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) Staff as the Environmental Analyst and was able to work on oil spill response and transportation regulations for the US. The work help to some extent assuage my pain and address some of our responsibility after the EXXON Valdez spill.
So it was a bitter irony that this past April, I spoke about oil spills and environment at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As I addressed the audience on this fortieth anniversary of Earth Day (for which Senator Nelson is credited as being one of its founders) we were all painfully aware that we might be witnessing what could become the largest oil spill in history.
In the coming months we will hear about what went wrong, and who or what agency is to blame, or how the “perfect storm” of events that led inexorably to this tragedy. But in the end it is we who use and demand oil. We all share in the suffering and some responsibility, however slight for what has happened and now for what will wash up on our shore.
Still, I don’t think I will give up using motorized vehicles again, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that, but it feels that some people might. Instead, as tears run down our face and we feel the pain of each other’s suffering, let the clarity of purpose come through to conserve, legislate, rethink and redefine our energy and environmental policy in our daily lives. There is no magic answer, no secret tool.
As a country we have to look honestly at the hidden costs of our oil economy, the cost in lives here and around the world. We must pursue peace, alternative energy and conservation with the same passion we pursue happiness.
But as we all feel this pain, and feel it we must, let us see the opportunity that is there for all of us, from all our different beliefs, no matter which political party. The opportunity is to redefine not only what is environment, but to redefine us as Americans, to commit ourselves to find love, respect, cooperation for each other. And as we do that, it will spread around the world, as we understand that we are all part of the environment, each one of us. And each one of us makes a difference