Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The solution to the Gulf oil spill..

... will not be found here.

Everyone seems to have a solution to what has become this nation's biggest catastrophe since 9-11. The remedies range from the simple minded to the insane to the downright idiotic. The dumbest idea I've heard to date comes from a talk radio host (the source of so many stupid ideas), who said that maybe every time an oil company has an oil spill, the government should as a punishment, force the company to lower the price of gas until they clean it up. Nice to the ears but do we really want to force the demand for oil up when it is the demand for oil itself that caused this problem in the first place?

The finger pointing has gotten so bad that I'm starting to walk around with my eyes covered. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around. The lion's share has got to be with BP who owns and operates the rig that is from latest estimates spewing one Exxon Valdez worth of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every five days. The company and its CEO Tony Hayward are deservedly favorite targets of the Left along with the administration of former President Bush.

The Right not surprisingly sees it differently. The fault they say lies squarely on the shoulders of President Obama. It is his oil spill they say, "his Katrina". Well guess what, both sides are right. The Bush administration certainly paved the way for disaster with their laissez-faire policy of letting the oil companies self regulate, thereby allowing the foxes guard the chicken coop if you will. But the Obama administration did little or nothing to change this atmosphere as spelled out in this article in Rolling Stone.

Of course all the finger pointing in the world will do absolutely nothing to stop the spill and even more significantly, prevent these tragedies in the future. If all of us were sincere in looking for the real culprit, if we truly cared to find the people who could make a real impact on the enviroment, all we would have to do is find a mirror. It is our own insatiable appetite for energy that has created the worst environmental disasters of the last two hundred years.

Yes, all of us are to blame. As anyone who has ever experienced a long term power outage knows, our dependence on energy is staggering. Normal life grinds to a standstill when our lights go out. No light to read by, no tv, radio, computer or fan, not to mention air conditioner, you can't open the fridge unless you want all your food to spoil. Our very existence is tested. Unless you of I live as survivalists up in the nether reaches of Michigan or Montana, raising our own food, building our own shelter, commuting on foot over unpaved trails we blazed ourselves by hand, you and I must claim some share of the responsibility for this crisis.

"We have to do something" has been the cry heard around the globe. One of the popular feel good movements is the one to boycott BP. But how will putting BP out of business as many have suggested, help solve the oil spill? Who will be left to clean up the mess after there's no more BP? Not to mention the terrible blow to the world economy, yes including our own if BP were to go under.

Of course BP will not go out of business simply by us buying gas at stations that don't sport the BP logo. The only people that a boycott will effect are the people who run those stations, people in our communities who need their jobs as much as we need ours.

Despite the global awareness of the perils of dependence on oil over the past forty years at least, our demand increases yearly. During the Seventies when Arab nations in the Middle East cut off the flow of oil, we learned difficult lessons about gas shortages. Gas prices skyrocketed, there were tremendous lines at filling stations, and gas rationing was introduced in some states. American cars that were once built like ships, became smaller and more fuel efficient. President Carter appeared from the White House wearing a cardigan sweater making the case that we turn down our thermostats and learn to live without, if only just a little. He was a supporter of alternative energy sources and went so far as to install solar panels on the roof of the White House.

Then the crisis eased up and gas prices leveled off, not to increase significantly in 35 years, in fact gas prices decreased if you factor inflation. Detroit didn't go back to the ship sized cars but came up with the SUV which guzzled gas with just as much relish. President Carter lost his re-election bid in part because of his suggestion that we live smaller than we had in the past. You can guess what happened to those solar panels. We went to living just as we had before.

The problem is, we want a strong economy, freedom to move about in our cars, use our air conditioners, hair dryers, dish washers, etc. We want to live far from the grind of the big city, in the relative peace and tranquility of the suburbs and beyond. We want cheap energy, and we want clean air and water.

Unfortunately, these things are mutually exclusive. Oil is simply harder and harder to get to as we've used up all of the easy sources. Companies are going to have to drill ever deeper to get to that black gold. The effort is going to be expensive and fraught with great risk to our environment.

If we want to do something truly meaningful to help prevent further catastrophes, we as a society must learn to change the way we live and build our communities. Despite forty years of awareness of not only of the finite supply of crude oil, but its deleterious effect on the environment, we continue to build communities that are entirely dependent on the automobile. This has to change.

My own experience bears this out. In the mid-nineties, my parents retired to the Phoenix area. As anyone who has ever flown into Sky Harbor Airport knows, the most significant land masses in that sprawling urban/suburban area are the lush green fairways and greens of golf courses markedly contrasting with the muted greens and browns of ever shrinking natural environment. The other unmistakable feature of the area are the expanding concrete ribbons of highways. Phoenix is enormous in land area and an average commute, at least in my mother's case, was about 45 miles each way. Public transportation does exist in the form of limited bus service. Ever take a city bus 45 miles? Needless to say, the automobile is the only way to get around the Valley of the Sun.

The real fallacy is that Phoenix like so many other regions of the Sun Belt is a very attractive place to retire as my parents did. The problem is, as people get older, their facilities begin to diminish. My father needed heart valve surgery in a hospital of course 45 miles from their house. At the very same time, my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind. Yet she was still driving the 45 miles to and from the hospital during the vigil with my father who never recovered from his surgery. After my father's death, my mother had to give up driving which meant that she was essentially stranded in her own home. She fortunately had friends who were very generous and willing to go out of their way to take her anywhere she wanted to go. But that was not her style so she moved backed to Chicago where she continues to this day to live quite independently on her own, dependent mostly on her two feet and the CTA.

My question is what do all the people in Phoenix (or comparable place) who do not have the gumption to move to a walkable, public transit friendly city do, once they cannot drive? Aside from the obvious lack of foresight on the part of planners is the fact that the Phoenix area is an environmental disaster. In addition to all those golf courses are lawns that people transplanted from more temperate climates seem to need. All this grass requires a tremendous amount of water in the middle of a desert.

As Phoenix is in a valley, pollution from all the vehicles typically creates a shroud of smog that is contained over the city.

All of this is contributing to climate change, no longer can a Phoenician retort, "but it's a dry heat" as humidity levels are slowly increasing.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fact that Phoenix sits in the midst of one of the most magnificent ecosystems on the planet, the Sonoran Desert which contains dozens of species of plants and animals that are entirely unique to the region. The encroachment on the desert due to urban sprawl, make the future of this truly spectacular place uncertain.

I single out Phoenix only because I know it first hand. In fact, in terms of urban planning in the United States over the past several decades, the Phoenix area is the rule, not the exception.

Phoenix and cities like it, i.e; sprawling, low population density urban-suburban areas that are designed to be entirely dependent on the automobile are the paradigm of old, failed systems of urban planning. If we are going to move ahead and create a world fit for our children and their children to live in, we must, like my mother, rethink our values and our lifestyles.

Big, densely populated, walkable cities with good public transportation systems aren't quite so old fashioned anymore. The future of cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to name a few, perhaps isn't quite so bleak after all.

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