Seeing Past the BP Spill

Alex Steffen
May 3 · 5 min read

[I posted this at Worldchanging shortly after the BP Spill. It seemed worth republishing now that Trump and his gang are undoing the off-shore drilling protections that were put in place in the aftermath of that tragedy in the Gulf.]

We’ve gotten a few inquiries lately about why we aren’t devoting a lot more discussion to the BP Spill. After all, isn’t this the “worst environmental disaster in American history?” Shouldn’t a site whose purpose is to explore solutions to planetary problems be all over the planet’s most visible current problem?

In a word, no. The decision not to cover the BP Spill has been fairly straightforward for us: we don’t do problems, unless we’re covering them in order to explain how a solution could work, or unless a new analysis of a problem is so telling that it changes the way we understand how it could be solved. The BP Spill is huge, but not particularly unique.

The BP Spill will almost certainly go down as the decade’s most visible industrial accident. The BP corporate leaders involved ought probably to go to jail. The wetlands and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico will suffer horrible environmental degradation. Local people will suffer the loss of their ways of life and of places they love, as well as health effects. The impact on the marine life of the Gulf is as yet unknowable.

Yet, while the BP Spill is the biggest single oil spill we here in America have experienced, in terms of overall impact, it’s just a drop in our pollution bucket. Thousands of major spills happen around the world each year. Even in terms of oil spilled in North America, this disaster is small compared to business as usual: more than 90% of all the oil spilled in North America comes from oil leaked from cars (or poured down drains) finding its way to the sea, according to a landmark 2002 report; in the Puget Sound region alone, more oil is leaked from cars and home use every two years than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

And oil spills are far from the worst environmental disasters we’ve unleashed and are in the process of unleashing through the routine operation of our economy as currently designed. Climate change will over the next century almost certainly prove far more destructive to the natural systems and human communities of the Gulf than any oil spill ever could, and that’s a problem the Deepwater rig would have worsened if it had worked perfectly, as part of its successful operation. And, as we’ve mentioned here before, climate change is only the largest problem in a set of interconnected problems that stem from transgressing our planetary boundaries, problems that include massive extinctions, marine deadzones, desertification, and ocean acidification. The entire living fabric of our planet is being shredded, and human communities irreparably harmed, by the systems that deliver our prosperity.

The key word here is systems. Unless we understand the problems we face as systemic problems, we don’t really understand them at all and can’t do much about them. Unless we understand that we need to redesign and rebuild the systems that support modern life on a massive scale, very quickly, we’re essentially missing the point, and guaranteeing that the destruction of the planet’s biosphere will continue.

Few in the American political landscape are willing to use the oil spill to point to the real nature of our challenges. What the BP Spill tells us is not that we need tougher environmental laws, or a ban of offshore oil exploration, or even a national clean-energy strategy. What the BP Spill tells us, if we’re really paying attention, is that the American economy needs systemic change, now. Even with tougher laws, bans on drilling and massive subsidies for wind and solar, the systems we depend upon for our way of life will be violently and cataclysmically destructive: the BP Spill is just a small manifestation of a massively larger problem. We need to be embracing an entirely different set of solutions right now. Political leaders in the US and worldwide need to move beyond short-term thinking and think big, think connected, and think ahead.

In failing to see that the BP Spill is a symptom, we also make it easy to blame the wrong people for the failures of the systems we now use. I’ve read dozens of pieces parroting the opinion that the BP Spill is all of our faults; that because we all use oil, we’ve all been responsible for making this happen. That’s just stupid. Leaving aside entirely the fact that this particular spill itself appears to be the result of unethical and possibly criminal leadership within BP, the simple fact is that we continue to use so much oil largely because Big Oil, the car companies, the road-building lobby and sprawl developers have engaged in one of the largest sustained political efforts in history to keep us using as much oil as possible by blocking climate legislation and gas taxes, fighting smart growth laws and new public transportation investments, stalling higher mileage standards in new cars, channeling trillions of dollars into new roads and auto infrastructure, gutting water- and air-quality laws, even (arguably) getting a former oil man (George W.) elected, which resulted in a war for oil and general atmosphere of climate denialism. We burn oil in such astonishing quantities because those who profit from selling and using oil have all but run the American political system for the last ten years, and exerted decades of dominant influence before that.

In that light, our personal behaviors are essentially meaningless, especially if they aren’t part of a larger effort to identify ways of changing our cities, transportation, agriculture and energy systems to function much more sustainably. If we want to change our impacts, we need to change our systems, on a scope we almost never talk about, stretching through essentially every aspect of our society.

Discussing how we might do that — how we might find solutions that work at the scope, scale and speed we need — is what Worldchanging does. We’ve published more than 11,000 essays, interviews, stories and blog posts about what those sorts of solutions might look like, how they might work, how we might actually begin to implement them. Exploring how we might actually build a bright green future — one that offers the prosperity we all demand with the sustainability we need — is what we do every day, day after day, as we have for almost seven years.

So you won’t see many pictures of oil-soaked pelicans or congressional hearings here. If you stick around, though, you might find some new ideas about how to build a future that works. Scope, scale and speed is the name of the game now. As we launch into a set of new editorial initiatives over the summer, we’ll be doing our best to report on solutions that offer all three.

Originally published on June 16, 2010 on Worldchanging

Alex Steffen

Written by

I think about the future for a living. Writer, public speaker, strategic advisor. Projects: Worldchanging; Carbon Zero; Heroic Future; The Nearly Now.

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