Updated 02 July 2014

Oil junkies

Lay off British Petroleum for just a moment. That spreading stain in the Gulf of Mexico is your fault too.


You do a little coke sometimes on the weekends, not bothering anybody. You are dismayed when you hear of yet another slaughter by the drug cartels, somewhere on another planet in Bogota or Juarez. You're a decent human being. Your modest few recreational grams have nothing to do with any of that, surely.

The oil-as-drug analogy is now a rather hackneyed, yet still useful one - not only because oil is a devilishly desirable, dangerous substance we have yet to manage without, but because we are in denial about how our personal use of it relates to the larger dismal picture.

We're full of righteous outrage at British Petroleum, the big black-hearted corporate of the moment. The outrage is appropriate: they've messed up on a nightmarish scale and, over a month later, they haven't come close to cleaning up their mess. Even if they do plug the leak somehow, there is no action they can take that will make things right, not for the blighted Gulf, and not for the 11 workers who will never have their lives back.

What isn't appropriate is that we aren't saving any outrage for ourselves. If you drive a car and are making no practical effort to change that situation (being anguished about the state of the planet, however passionately, doesn't count), you are contributing to disasters like Deepwater Horizon.

It sounds simplistic, but it's simply true: without our demand for crude oil, BP wouldn't be supplying it. And we don't just demand: we crave and clamour for it. According to the International Energy Agency, human beings currently consume about 85 million barrels of oil (or 5440 olympic-size swimming pools) per day.

I've singled out motorists (again) because cars are by far the biggest petroleum users, but every last one of us who buys products transported from source (i.e. everything in your local supermarket), is collectively responsible for sucking that delectable black goo out from its ancient resting places in the earth's crust, and spitting it onto the surface where it serves to lubricate our modern lives.

In addition to moving us or things we want from here to there by road, oil fuels our planes and its multiple forms crop up throughout the manufactured world – from the tarmac for all those cars and planes to tootle about on, to the plastics that make up their interiors.

It's amazing, considering its ubiquity and volume and the considerable distances it has to be transported, that we don't actually see oil more often; that it's out of sight and mind until an Exxon Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon smears it all over the news. In actual fact, the big dramatic spills make up only a small percentage of this kind of pollution - most of the oil that gets out of the system and into the environment does so surreptitiously, in relatively unspectacular dribs and drabs - a chronic bleed that amounts to hundreds of millions of gallons each year.

It sneaks out of faulty pipelines, runs off from vehicles and into gutters and down to the ocean; it is flushed out directly into the sea when ships are cleaned. Its hydrocarbons enter the air from exhaust pipes, and rain washes them into the waterways.

There are also massive oil spills that don't register with media and public because they happen in out-of-the spotlight places, where damage may not be immediately obvious. When the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound (Alaska, 1989), it became one of the most notorious environmental disasters in history, whereas few people have heard of the 1992 Fergana Valley spill (Uzbekistan, 80 million gallons), to name just one.  

The first World Environment Day was held in June 1973. The environmental movement was already well underway then, but a planet in real, grinding distress still felt like a vague and distant concept, a problem for future generations to handle. There was still Time. That year would also see a major energy crisis: oil-producing Arab states used their monopoly of the fuel as a political weapon by drastically hiking prices, cutting production and placing embargoes on sales to industrialized western nations.

'Fill up with Old Time Salvation'. Some petrol stations abandoned during the 1973-74 oil crisis were converted for other uses. This one in Potlach, United States, was turned into a religious meeting hall. (David Falconer, Environmental Protection Agency)

The resulting rations at the fuel pump should have shocked oil-dependent nations cold turkey into finding viable alternatives. It could have been a momentous turning point, an opportunity for human adaptability and ingenuity to triumph.

It wasn't. In 1973 there were 3.9 billion people. Thirty-seven years down the line there are 6.8 billion of us, and we're using more fossil fuels (sound outdated, don't they?) than ever before. We do worry and think and talk (and write) a lot more about the environment than in '73, but there's really not much more to say. Time's up. We are the future generation.

Let's stop wasting energy berating BP. Rest assured, their execs aren't having a pleasant time. The US Justice system is frowning upon them and (probably much scarier) the company has already lost $75bn in market value, and counting, since the spill began.

Never mind them: I'm tired of hearing about the pushers. They've been in the spotlight for six weeks now; it's time to change focus to the addicts. A lot of people, most of them oil addicts too I have little doubt, are planting trees this weekend. This is helpful and pleasantly symbolic, but it won't buy anyone environmental absolution.

What I really want to hear about is what you plan to do about your own personal messy leaks and spills, at source, right now. This isn't 1973; it's 2010, and the crisis is already here. Feel it. 

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, June 2010)

The images of faces drooling oil are from an ad campaign for Brita Water Filters, with the tagline: "Last year 16 million gallons of oil were consumed to make plastic water bottles." (DDB, San Francisco)

Read more
Oil-spill workers getting sick
Fuel-saving tips
EnviroHealth Centre




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