Spill, Baby, Spill

May 3, 2010

I’ve been cringing away from the news about the gulf coast oil spill since it hit but I am galvanized into a response by Paul Krugman’s excellent editorial in the Times today.  While deprecating all the circumstances which have contributed to this he points out one potential upside – one that I’d also considered:

And maybe, just maybe, the disaster will help reverse environmentalism’s long political slide — a slide largely caused by our very success in alleviating highly visible pollution. If so, there may be a small silver lining to a very dark cloud.

Perhaps this will be what it takes to re-focus our natural attention (and shut up some of the ridiculous nay-sayers) on the importance of cultural, economic and legal protection for the environment.  As he very rightly points out, a lot of the early interest and attention for environmental protection came at a time when pollution was obvious – smog smothered cities, burning rivers and oil slicked coastlines.  Acid rain was terrorizing mothers and it was easy to see that something had to give.  Public concern led to some major behavioral and legal changes and the situation did indeed improve.  In recent years, however, a lot of our most pernicious environmental problems are nigh on invisible.  We can’t see carbon being emitted – we can’t watch the o-zone shrinking – the damage is hard to comprehend.  As a result, public outrage about environmental damage has ebbed.  Now we have a reason to care again.

The silver lining Krugman is talking about is that maybe this will be enough of a wake up call to lay to rest the “drill, baby, drill” chanting for quite some time.  And it has already at least paused the administration’s recent proposal to open up more of the eastern seaboard to drilling.  The solution to reducing our dependence on foreign oil is not to suck more of it out of North America … its to reduce our dependence on oil full stop.  We need to pay attention to this catastrophe because it is what will make us institute the changes that are necessary.

For the gulf blowout is a pointed reminder that the environment won’t take care of itself, that unless carefully watched and regulated, modern technology and industry can all too easily inflict horrific damage on the planet.

Here’s the oil slick as seen from space on April 25th.   Its reaching coastlines now but alarming even last week.  The photo is from NASA’s image of the day gallery here.


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