The New York Daily News asked me to write an OpEd about our individual responsibility for the oil spill. Unfortunately, they titled and subtitled the piece: "We are a nation of oiloholics: Instead of ranting at oil companies,
pols, let's look in the mirror." I wish they had said "As well as ranting at oil companies… let's look in the mirror." Because I think we need to take both collective as well as individual responsibility. It's not either/or.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can read the piece at the Daily News (and see what some commentators had to say and take issue with them if you like). And/or you can read it here (and also leave comments):
Question: When an alcoholic leaves a bar, gets behind the wheel and
drunkenly drives into his third or fourth wreck, do you blame the
bartender who served the drinks or the alcoholic who drank them? Now
answer this: When a society addicted to greater and greater fossil fuel
use experiences what may amount to the largest oil spill in world
history – after a growing number of other fossil fuel catastrophes – do
you blame the oil company that drilled for the oil or the society that
I mean, I get it. If you're anything like me, you're pissed as hell
at BP, the company whose deep-water oil well continues to gush some
60,000 barrels of oil a day, nobody knows exactly how much, into the Gulf of Mexico–and the infuriatingly feeble attempts to
clean it up, much less plug the hole. You're probably pissed, too, at
the United States Department of the Interior who gave BP (and many other oil companies, by the way)
permission to drill in hazardous conditions without a reliable safety
But after you dial your Senator – as you should – and rant about our
country getting off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy, it's worth
taking a good, hard look at whether the bartender, as it were, deserves
all of the blame.
Because again, if you're anything like me, even though it's 90
degrees outside, you're currently sitting in a home or office where the
air conditioning is cranked so high that your toes are too cold for your
flip-flops. Most of that energy comes from, you guessed it, a fossil
fuel called coal. Or, perhaps, as I used to, you run your car engine for
four hours every week and go nowhere while you protect your curbside
parking space in a city that has one of the world's most accessible and
efficient transit systems. The fuel for that, of course, starts as crude
oil. Or maybe your purchases, manufactured with the oomph of fossil
fuels, burst out of your closets to the point that you rent a storage
unit so full of crap that you're no longer sure what's in it.
Meanwhile, we have to face up to the fact that the oil we so badly
crave isn't exactly bubbling up out of the ground the way it used to in
states like Oklahoma and Texas.
There was a day when we could scoop the stuff up with a saucepan, and
oilrigs were rickety old wooden affairs. Now, the goop is so scarce that
oil companies must spend billions to build potentially dangerous,
deepwater wells that drill a mile under our oceans. It used to take one
barrel of oil to power the harvesting of 100 barrels. Now, you have to
burn an entire barrel of oil just to get 11. Simply put, worldwide, the
growth in demand for oil is far outstripping growth in its dwindling
This is to say nothing of coal, where we get so much of our
electricity. The extraction of the black stuff from the earth is an
arcane and dangerous process, and burning it pumps thousands of tons of
toxins and greenhouse gases into our air.
All of which means it's getting harder and harder to safely satisfy
our energy addiction. We will have to drill in deeper and deeper water
and face up to worse and worse catastrophes. The BP oil
spill is just the beginning, or at least just the middle. Because let's
not forget that we have thousands of troops in the Middle
East who probably wouldn't be there if not for oil. High gas prices
in 2008, many believe, helped push the American economy into recession.
And of course, our dependence on fossil fuels is causing an
irreversible change in planetary climate that will bring immense human
Typically, our knee-jerk is to blame the greedy corporations and
do-nothing politicians. But how much more could be accomplished if each
American accepted that he or she plays a part in the problem and
therefore could contribute to the solution?
A lot more. That is the line of reasoning that led me, back in late
2006, to take the moniker "No Impact Man" and to spend a year –
chronicled in a book and film – using as little energy as possible in
the middle of New York City. I found that I'd joined a
movement of Americans searching for ways to live less energy-intensive
lives. Since then, I've been called an environmentalist, an extremist
and an activist. But actually, I'm just a former writer of history
books. A typical New York media professional who couldn't take
blaming the bartender anymore.
What I discovered on my journey is that there are 200,000 New Yorkers
who don't even use the energy of mass transit and commute back and
forth to work each day by bike – getting their exercise in the meantime.
Another half a million New Yorkers shop for food from city farmers'
markets each week, saving the fossil fuels associated with the 1,500
mile journey industrially-produced food typically makes from farm to
plate while getting food that's actually good for them.
Some cut their flying by video-conferencing or taking one two-week
vacation instead of two one-week vacations. Others use fans instead of
air-conditioners or drink tap water instead of bottled. Some have
committed to buying only second-hand. Others have given up beef. The
list, of course, goes on and on.
What these people who take responsibility for energy consumption have
discovered is that they get less-expensive, healthier lives in return.
And they believe the benefits of their own lifestyle changes are a
mini-version of what could happen to our culture. A country that relies
less on fossil fuels and more on domestically-produced renewable energy
keeps its money and its soldiers at home. It gets a renewable technology
industry that provides jobs. It gets air without chemicals burned into
it. And it gets beaches and oceans that aren't filled with toxic sludge.
I know what you're thinking because I've thought it, too. I'd like to
change my life and help, but so far, I haven't really been affected. I
feel sorry for the Gulf
Coast folks but that's not me.
It will be. Right now, to satisfy our energy addictions, politicians
and corporations are considering proposals for as many as 50,000 natural
gas wells right in the middle of New York City's watershed. In a
process, called "fracking," they propose to send a high-pressure mixture
of water and extremely toxic chemicals into the ground to cause
mini-earthquakes to release the hard-to-get natural gas.
Environmentalists have held them off thus far, but what happens when
our energy yearnings makes them yield? What happens if fracking's toxic
mixtures end up in the aquifer that supplies 8 million New Yorkers with
Do we want to get what we've always got? Are we willing to accept the
consequences of our energy addictions? Or do we want something better?
More to the point, are you personally willing to accept some of the
blame – alongside the bartender – and help us break our energy habit? If
so, I'll see you in the bike lane.
Beavan is author of No Impact Man and director of
NoImpactProject.org, which helps people choose lifestyles that are
better for them and better for the planet.