Oil in the Gulf: It’s time to change our ways

Guest blog by Glenn Rutherford

The Gulf of Mexico is a natural wonder and an international treasure.

Families flock to its beaches. Every spring about half of Louisville heads south to bask in the sun along the Gulf’s shores. Family picture albums in this community are filled with the faces of smiling children collecting shells or playing in the mostly gentle edgewaters.

And now this resource, this vacation Mecca, this treasure of wind and sand, sun and surf, is threatened by the very people who love it so.

The Gulf of Mexico is under attack not just by oil, but by our way of life. “Drill, baby, drill” has been embraced by all sides of the political spectrum, from the Democratic administration of President Obama to the leaders of the political right, some of whom have continued to embrace the lust for Gulf of Mexico oil as it gushes unabashed from a man-made hole a mile beneath the surface waters.

But “drill, baby, drill” is morphing into “kill, baby, kill” as the oil we so selfishly crave kills fish and turtles and birds. And along the Louisiana coast it’s killing the careers and lifestyles of fishermen and their families, too.

It’s all maddening, because we’ve been warned about this kind of threat time and time again.

Way back in 1976 a tanker called the Argo Merchant ran aground off Nantucket and spilled 183,000 barrels of oil that produced a slick a hundred miles long. Politicians, including the president, said we’d take steps to see that such a thing didn’t happen again.

Then in 1979 an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico spilled 140 million gallons of oil into the water. A decade later the Exxon Valdez skidded onto the rocks in Prince William Sound and spilled 240,000 barrels of crude onto Alaska’s shore. In 1990 another tanker accident sent 300,000 gallons of the ineptly named “light, sweet” crude oil onto one of Southern California’s biggest nature preserves.

And since the year 2000, it’s become even worse. Where we used to have an oil-related accident two or three times a year in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, as demand for oil skyrocketed so did the number of environmental catastrophes. The Marine Group, a Norwegian company that tracks and cleans oil spills all over the world, says that since 2002 there have been at least a dozen major oil-related accidents on coastlines around the world each year.

The point is that we’ve seen this coming; we’ve seen the photos of the oily birds and the beached turtles. And yet our demand for fossil fuel is as overwhelming as our greed. As Mark Twain said nearly a century ago, man is the only animal who has taken a thousand useless luxuries and turned them into necessities. And Twain never saw an SUV or a plastic water bottle; he never dreamed of central air, eight-lane highways or desktop computers.

We can’t keep doing this to our home. We can’t keep fouling not only our beaches but also our air and our water and expect that life will continue to purr along just as it always has. Environmental change is coming because it has to, and Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized that fact.

In his message for World Peace Day last January, the pope noted that we can no longer afford to be indifferent about what we are doing to our home.

“It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view,” he said. “Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all. It is an urgent challenge.”

It is a challenge that begins with you and me. While the oil continues to spread over the Gulf of Mexico, you and I need to examine our own failed environmental policies. You and I need to reduce the number of miles we drive whenever possible. We need to turn off lights, unplug electronic devices at night, and avoid the use of plastic bags and water bottles.

We need to take all the little steps we can while there’s still time to do it. And when we get mad about the Gulf, the oil companies, or coal companies or any other easily identified target, we need to get mad at ourselves, too. And then change our ways.

Glenn Rutherford is assistant editor of The Record of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky. This article first appeared as The Record's May 13, 2010 editorial.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.