On this anniversary of the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, attention here in south Louisiana is focused on the consequences of that traumatic event. As the Deepwater Horizon disaster begins to recede into history, we have heard wildly divergent views of what its effects have been for our region.
On the one hand, we hear optimistic statements about the almost complete recovery of the Gulf. On the other, we hear troubling reports of what still lies beneath the surface, and of possible long-term ecological damage that can only be assessed after much careful scientific study. Meanwhile, tourist agencies and public officials urge us to relax, take a swim, and eat some seafood.
I suggest that in assessing the real costs of oil, we take a larger view of the matter. What are its costs over the long term for this region, for humanity, and for the whole planet?
My family came to New Orleans almost three hundred years ago. Over the centuries that we have been here, we have lived in a culture that has been shaped by the bodies of water that surround us: by the Gulf, the lakes, the bayous, the wetlands, and by the great river that created our landscape, the very ground on which we stand.
We might reflect for a moment on our local and regional history over that period, and on a much larger history of which we are a part. If we go back a century and a half, we find a Louisiana that was rich and powerful. Its power came from an economy based on cotton, sugar cane and slavery. This economy brought poverty and oppression to many, but wealth and prosperity to the rulers and the more privileged. It was also an economy that was doomed to extinction.
On the eve of the Civil War, the great geographer Reclus could observe that according to the conventional wisdom of the American South, this system of production “was not only a necessary and inexorable institution, but also a moral and humane one, producing the greatest political and social advantages.” Just as the economic system based on cotton, sugar cane, and slavery was about to collapse, and the entire old society with it, there was an almost universal outcry among those who could speak and be heard that that system was inevitable and eternal, that our society depended on it, and that without it there would be catastrophe. But this system was itself the catastrophe.
Since the recent dawn of the Petroleum Age, Louisiana has produced nearly twenty billion barrels of oil, generating enormous wealth for the national and global economies. Once again, the conventional wisdom has seen the prevailing economic order as both absolutely necessary and highly advantageous. But what, in reality, have the dominant extractive and petrochemical industries, and especially oil, brought to Louisiana? We are one of the poorest states. We are one of the least educated states. We are one of the unhealthiest states. We are one of the states in which government is most abjectly subservient to industry. We are one of the states most scarred by rampant corruption. We are one of the most environmentally devastated states. And now, the oil industry has damaged coastal wetlands and Gulf ecosystems, quite possibly for a considerable period into the future, in the worst marine oil disaster in history.
But these are far from the greatest evils that have been inflicted on us by petro-tyranny. Thanks largely to the operations of the oil industry, two thousand square miles of our coastal wetlands have disappeared. Communities whose lives have been dependent on these wetlands and on the Gulf for hundreds or, in the case of indigenous people, even thousands of years, are disappearing. Finally, and most disastrously, global climate change caused by a carbon-based, and above all, a petroleum-based economy, will soon submerge coastal Louisiana entirely. Our home, our native land, will disappear forever.
We are not unique victims of such petro-terrorism. We might also ask what the oil industry has brought to humanity as a whole, and to the planet. Oil has fueled a powerful system of production, which, while creating massive amounts of material goods, has also been essential to creating the Sixth Great Mass Extinction in the three-billion-year history of life on earth. This is the great catastrophe of our age. It is, indeed, the single most important fact about life on earth at the present moment, and the single most traumatic one, which is why it is almost never mentioned in electoral campaigns, news reports, or textbooks.
Oil has also brought us global climate change that threatens to inundate not only our region, but lands where hundreds of millions of people live. It threatens to create a disaster for global agriculture, thus contributing to the possibility of a catastrophic population crash. It threatens to aggravate species and ecosystem destruction, and thus accelerate the existing biodiversity crisis. This massive climate disruption is the second greatest catastrophe of our age, one which is now much discussed, but almost never faced as if it were a real, impending reality.
If we take an only slightly larger view of history than is customary, we will realize an obvious truth. Oil will end, and it will end very soon. The petroleum economy will decline, and it will do so in this century. The Petroleum Age will have existed for only a brief moment in human history, no more than a fleeting nanosecond in earth’s history. The great question is how much social and ecological havoc it will wreak before it disappears.
The tragic irony is that we have the technological means to create abundance for all without the massive ecological devastation caused by fossil fuels (and other destructive technologies). A large part of our challenge today, on the one-year anniversary of the worst marine oil disaster in history, is to learn to assess both the costs and benefits of oil in relation to something much greater: the value of the healthy flourishing of life on earth.