The eminently quotable Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once defined Democracy as ". . . the process by which people choose the man who will be blamed." Despite the fact that Russell had obviously stuck his lordly tongue firmly into his aristocratic cheek,
he was nonetheless stating a sad but painfully honest truth. Today, perhaps more than at any time in human history, many people's first response to crisis or catastrophe is the affixing of blame. It is no longer that collective "rolling up of the sleeves" which used to precede taking decisive steps towards the amelioration of whatever the crisis or catastrophe may have been. In turn, playing this blame game" creates two severe difficulties or inabilities -- one obvious, the other a bit less so:
- Obviously, it keeps people from truly solving the problem at hand, and
- Not so obviously, it makes it incredibly difficult to learn what to do in order to (hopefully) keep the problem from reoccurring.
Take the Gulf oil spill as a prime example.
From almost the first moment that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded more than five weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans, corporate spokespeople and cable chatterboxes have been engaged in a massive campaign of finger pointing. And although British Petroleum has unequivocally stated that they will be responsible for the costs of cleaning up this unbelievable mess, the finger pointing persists. (B.P. bloody better well pick up the tab for both the cleanup and the devastation. Goodness knows they can afford it; they earned $5.6 billion in the first quarter of 2010.)
But lost in all this caterwauling are some unnerving facts:
- That 11 human beings lost their lives in the explosion and resulting fire.
- That tens of thousands of barrels of oil have been gushing out on a daily basis from more than a mile beneath the ocean surface.
- That B.P.'s initial estimate of 5,000 barrels per day has proven to be grossly inaccurate.
- That the size of the oil spill is now larger than the state of North Carolina (as of today a more than 22-mile plume)
- That this is already the worst such man-made disaster in American -- if not global -- history.
- That this is both an ecological and an economic crisis of unfathomable proportions; one from which we will not be fully recovered for years and years to come.
This is simply not the time -- nor these the circumstances -- for anyone -- be they Democrat, Republican, Independent or Libertarian -- to be wasting time in an attempt to score political points. Certainly there needs to be an exhaustive investigation of why the drilling rig's failsafe mechanism did not work and where the various government oversight entities fell down. Additionally, it is essential that the government determine whether, in addition to an obvious financial liability, British Petroleum may also be subject to criminal charges. (I for one strongly believe they should be arrested for both criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and negligent and reckless homicide). The answers to these and many, many other questions are both proper and absolutely essential. But they are not part of the "blame game" of which we speak.
More critically, what in the world will we learn, what knowledge can we gain, from this catastrophe? Most important of all, how will this new found knowledge serve us? How will it ultimately affect the way we act in the future in order to save our planet?
I for one see a golden possibility emerging from all the muck and drek currently threatening our economy and ecosystem; a possibility that we will finally, finally come to the conclusion that as stewards of the planet, we have no choice but to end our reliance on oil. There are reasons 'aplenty -- some economic, some political, and some environmental.
- The U.S. uses roughly 25% of the world's oil -- 7.5 billion barrels per year -- but we have only 2-3% of the world's proven petroleum reserves.
- Even if we were able to successfully drill and refine all of our proven reserves, it would provide us with just a bit over 1% of all the oil we use and would "drive down" the per gallon price of gasoline by a whopping 3 cents by 2030. By comparison, raising the fuel efficiency standards of American automobiles to 35.5 miles per gallon for cars and trucks (as President Obama is doing) will save us the equivalent of $1 per gallon by 2030. And, were we to raise the standards to 55 miles per gallon, we would wind up saving the equivalent of $1.45 per gallon by 2030. It would also save us from importing 3.9 million barrels of oil seven days a week, 365 days a year.
- (It should be noted that the European Union already gets 42 miles per gallon and is moving to 65 miles per gallon by 2020. In 2010, China, Canada, Japan and South Korea all have stronger fuel economy standards than we do.)
- Even if offshore oil--drilling technology is 99% safe, that is not safe enough. The current crisis proves this in spades. If, God forbid, we suffer yet another catastrophic oil spill we will do well to recall the old English proverb which teaches, "He who is shipwrecked the second time cannot lay blame on Neptune."
There have already been incredible advances in solar, geothermal, biomass and wind-power technology that are just ripe for the development. There is also Senator Bernard Sanders' legislation to require the above-mentioned fuel efficiency standards. We should let everyone in Washington know that we stand behind the senator's proposal.
Without question, freeing ourselves from oil is possible. It is also absolutely essential and terribly difficult. It will take money, government involvement and a level of political will, leadership and bipartisan cooperation that has been sorely missing for more than a generation. What such an extended -- calling it revolutionary -- effort will require is something that President Kennedy addressed nearly a half-century ago . . . political will:
"Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our responsibility for the future."
One of the things we have been lacking in this country for a long, long time is a national challenge. Here is one that, to my way of thinking, we have no choice but to tackle. Radically altering the way we fuel our nation, our economy, our society, is not a fad; it is a change of both reality and lifestyle we have to make. Period. It will create new industries which in turn will create new jobs and new exports. It will release us from the stranglehold in which so many hostile nations and peoples have us, and truly free us to become moral stewards of the earth which has been entrusted to us by the Divine.
Remember: we are not the earth's masters; we are its stewards.
For too long we have lent far more energy to uncovering who is to blame for our problems and challenges than in rolling up our collective sleeves and rectifying the difficulties which beset us. We can no longer afford to live as if Lord Russell's words were true. Or worse, to follow the dictum of his older contemporary Oscar Wilde, who proclaimed, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame."
As witty as Russell and Wilde may have been, let us prove that they were wrong.
It does matter whether you win or lose . . . especially when it comes to the future of the planet.
©2010 Kurt F. Stone