Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trouble in Paradise

refugio state beach

The beaches of California can be beautiful. In some cases, however, they have been sullied by development or pollution. Such flaws are not always apparent upon first glance. The beaches near Santa Barbara are an unfortunate example. One of the campgrounds we stayed at during our bike tour was at Refugio State Beach. It's a lovely spot, and it has a hike/bike section right up front with a view of the ocean. As you look out to the horizon, you quickly notice several offshore oil rigs. They are far enough away that they don't detract from the view too much, but there is another impact which is much closer. The sand is filled with globs of crude oil which has drifted over from the rigs. It is nasty stuff, very difficult to remove from skin, and pretty much impossible to remove from clothing. Keep that in mind before you decide to take a luxurious, barefoot stroll on the beaches near Santa Barbara.

crude oil

I see this beach as a microcosm of our planet, a gem that is being ruined by our oil addiction, and it's going to get worse. Much worse, in fact. One need only look at current trends to see where things are headed.

First of all, demand has been rising dramatically, and this is due to several factors. The prevailing economic model is based primarily upon fossil fuels. They are used to power the manufacturing and transportation of products, and many of the products themselves, like plastics, are petroleum based. This model also demands a relentless pursuit of growth and increasing consumption, and the standard business model views these goals as top priorities. Booming emerging markets like those in China and India have made the demand much more expansive on a global scale. Finally, the majority of our transportation infrastructure is driven by fossil fuels. Demand cannot decrease, or even level out, within such a model.

Second, supply is limited. All of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, or is running out fast. This forces us to tap sources which are much more difficult to obtain, and the environmental impact of these extraction processes can be devastating. We have already seen examples of this. When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, it caused untold amounts of crude to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil flowed for weeks on end, and we essentially had no idea how to stop it. That is how reckless our behavior is become. We embarked upon a complicated extraction method without an effective plan in place were things to go wrong. Other sources like tar sands and oil shale require extraction methods that are terribly destructive to the environment, and those endeavors are underway as well. At the other end of the process, the emissions from these fuels are altering the climate itself.

Finally, with an ever increasing demand, conflicts over who controls the dwindling supply will continue to intensify. We can expect to see more oil wars in the near future, and they are likely to extend beyond the Middle East.

So, what can be done about this? In truth, I do not believe these crises can be averted completely. Our oil addition is so strong and so severe, we will endure one catastrophe after another, and we will keep demanding more. Meanwhile, the oil lobby fights tooth and nail to insure this dependence. They are immensely powerful, and their influence over markets and governments is huge. Best we can do is lessen the impact. This can be done on a personal level and a local level. A more diversified transportation infrastructure would be a good start, one which focuses more on walking, bicycling, and public transportation. Reducing our personal consumption is another. Most Americans have way more stuff than they need, and can likely reduce their possessions in a way that simplifies their life and saves them money. For those things we can't do without, repairing or buying used instead of new is a good way to go. Finally, buying locally made or locally grown products can begin to reverse the globalism that dominates our markets these days. Some may balk and consider such changes to be unacceptable sacrifices, but if they try it, they may well find that it actually improves their quality of life in ways they have never imagined.

Update: May 23, 2015

I suppose it was just a matter of time. Very discouraging to see the recent oil spill which has fouled Refugio State Beach and surrounding areas. Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

oil spill

oil spill

oil spill

No comments:

Post a Comment