Can we really ever move beyond petroleum? Traditional fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are so ingrained in our culture and way of life that eradicating them as fuel sources soon is unlikely. We need to think about what we produce and the costs that go beyond the balance sheet: the costs to the environment, to the people that live where our raw materials originate, the cost of the life of a pelican, gull or fish. It is our personal responsibility to consume less and conserve more.
As the days go by and the environmental disaster continues to unfold in the Gulf, a question arises: Can we really ever move beyond petroleum? Alternative fuels, solar, wind and the like all hold some promise for the future, but traditional fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are so ingrained in our culture and way of life that eradicating them as fuel sources soon is unlikely.
Hidden under various ingredient names, petroleum is used in so many things other than just fuel, it is almost mind boggling: from the makeup you wear, to your toothpaste, the diapers you put on your child, to the computer you are reading this on, dentures, bubble gum, lipstick, moisturizers. Even some brands of vinegar use petroleum. Similarly, coal is such a large part of our infrastructure that moving away from the industry is unlikely in the short term. Almost half of the electricity used in this country comes from coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
So what do we do?
Some would tell us that technology will save us, but no matter how good or safe the technology will become there will always be an impact and a risk. Too often we have thought of environmental impact as the carbon footprint of a product, and we have forgotten the core principles behind environmentalism, which are the reduction of pollution, the protection of biodiversity and species, and as the dominant species on the planet, the continuation of life itself. The Gulf spill will have a very small carbon footprint and an even smaller impact on global warming – but its effects will be felt for generations by all of us, flora and fauna included.
We, as environmentalists, have spent too much time and effort on issues that are difficult for the average American to grasp: the “hell fire and brimstone” of global warming and the complex tonnage equations of our carbon footprints and how best to offset them. We have spent far too little on the core principles and foundations of the environmental movement. Both global warming and carbon footprints have significant scientific proof, but because their theories and tangibility are difficult to grasp, it is hard to convince the
It’s time for full cost accounting and measuring the origin impact. We have to think beyond the carbon footprint or the cost of the raw materials. We need to think about what we produce and the costs that go beyond the balance sheet: the costs to the environment, to the people that live where our raw materials originate, the cost of the life of a pelican, gull or fish. It’s time that we assign someone to represent future generations that think of our impact on them. The cost for blowing up a mountain to access its coal should be much greater than the price paid to the landowner for the land. The cost of the deterioration or destruction of an ecosystem must be much greater than the cost of buying access to its stream or paying a usage fee to a local community.
What is the value of a tree, a flower, a mountain or a stream? I would argue their value is incalculable. But in order to move forward, we must value them, and the cost for using them should benefit the common good, the environment itself.
Recent events make it clear that we need to change. Unfortunately for those reading this, we will not stop our dependence on oil and coal in our lifetimes. We, then, have an even greater role, one that rarely gets any press or attention: personal responsibility to consume less and conserve more.
© 2010, Derrick Mains. All rights reserved. Do not republish.