Whether you’ve been following the live pictures of oil spewing out of the blown wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico or whether you have been getting news of the catastrophe through more pedestrian means such as reading the newspaper; the conclusion is the same: what is likely to be considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is unfolding before our eyes. I say U.S. history, because environmental catastrophes of this magnitude are all too common in other regions of the world. For example did you know Nigeria, which supplies 40% of the U.S. crude oil supply, is the oil spill capitol of the world; a dubious distinction it has “earned” with cumulative oil leaks equivalent to the current Gulf spill every single year . I didn’t know that until recently. Why didn’t I know; because that disaster most directly affects people of color in a poor nation? The Gulf spill is playing out on the white, tourist friendly (or shall I say formerly tourist friendly) beaches of a rich, first world country and is thus receiving constant attention. Oil leaking out into the environment is certainly most unwelcome regardless of location; but I do welcome increased scrutiny on oil: how it is extracted, how it is used, and the consequences of that use. I have heard inklings of the larger picture from the media, musings that “we need to reduce our dependence on oil”. True enough, but musings from the media are not being translated into real change. To be perfectly blunt: we need to vastly reduce our energy usage and there is one obvious way to do so: to stop driving our cars. We don’t need to “Drill Baby Drill”…or new rallying cry should be to “Walk Baby Walk”.
Reform has to be far more sweeping than increased oversight of drilling operations, we need policies that dramatically curb the use of personal automobiles, and by extension oil, and we need them quickly. While BP is certainly, to use a phrase my mother taught me, “guilty as sin” the United States government (both Republican and Democratic administrations) has crafted and implemented policies that effectively encourage the use of oil; specifically the extensive of cars by individual citizens. In order to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuel and all its attendant negative consequences we need government policies that encourage us to hang up our car keys and put on our walking shoes. President Obama has yet to solicit my opinion, but if he were to ask here is what I have in mind:
- Massive investment in public transportation infrastructure. People cannot give up their cars if they cannot get to where they need to go without one. Rural areas should have regional transport hubs; places where one can park their car and then take a train or bus to another regional transport hub…think someone trying to get from Fresno, California to Santa Barbara California or from Columbus, Nebraska to Grand Island, Nebraska. Service needs to be predictable, efficient, and reasonably priced. In urban areas it must be completely possible to get around without the use of a car at all. Specifically, major schools, cultural centers, hospitals, airports, shopping districts, etc. all need to be able to accessed quickly and efficiently. In Los Angeles, it is something of a joke that our light rail system does not go major destinations such as the airports, UCLA, the county museums, or the county hospitals. Expensive infrastructure investments could be a difficult proposition given our increasing economic austerity; however such investments build something lasting that would provide us and future generations with a better life. Last month’s jobs data reported that 411,000 government jobs were created as temporary census workers. Can you imagine the positive economic and societal impact from 411,000 long-term, well-paying jobs that actually built something rather than just counted people.
- Disincentivise the use of gas through additional taxes on the oil industry and on gasoline itself. This would not be politically popular, but it would be effective. When gas spiked to nearly $5.00 per gallon, I heard countless, well-educated, upper middle class people say, “With gas so expensive, I am really thinking about how to minimize my driving” or “I figured out how to use the train/bus/bike to get to work”. Now that the price of gas is down to a more “reasonable” $3.00 per gallon, where are the vast majority of those people…back in their cars. Double the price of gas and I can guarantee you that people will think twice before driving. You will also create a large new constituency to support public transportation. You may argue that such an increase in prices will hurt people economically and I will wholeheartedly agree with you…that’s the point. Is your concern for the poor and those struggling to get by? Chances are those folks are already using public transport, walking, and limiting their driving – they’ve never been able to afford driving around in an SUV. Is your concern for the middle class folks who are struggling with job losses, adjusting mortgages, and the like? It was the price of housing, health care, and food that likely got those people to the edge of economic survival in the first place…why not raise the price of gas and help those folks out with healthcare or staying in their homes? Why the sudden concern for them over gas prices? Are you concerned about small businesses? If your business model depends on large amounts of gasoline based transportation; then that is a heavily polluting business model that we need to think long and hard about maintaining. How might we help those people transform into sustainable business models? The price of goods and services needs to accurately reflect their costs; the price of gasoline does not accurately reflect its devastating environmental cost; if it did we’d use a lot less.
- Making communities pedestrian, bike, and public transport friendly, while making them less hospitable to cars. Some ideas: safe bike corridors (perhaps by removing on street parking). Any new building should allow pediatricians access without having to traipse through a parking lot. Bike racks should be provided. Parking should be limited and should be fee-based…no free parking.
- Improve the quality of and require students to attend neighborhood schools. In Pasadena, “school choice” has resulted in some schools flourishing as involved parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds work to improve a school and then other similar parents subsequently improve the school resulting in a positive feedback loop. The converse is also true; some schools are virtually abandoned by involved families and are left at the bottom of the heap. The system results in thousands of students every day being driven to schools outside of walking distance from their home. This scenario repeats itself over and over across America. What a ridiculous waste of energy when nearly every home in Pasadena has at least two public elementary schools less than one mile away. What if students were required to attend a neighborhood school and those neighborhoods schools were all high quality? Why you would reduce gasoline consumption, desegregate schools, and improve education.
- Lead by example. The government should be a model of energy conservation; Consideration should be given to silting facilities near public transportation. Employees should be given incentives to use public transportation or walk/bike.
Note that some of these solutions are relatively inexpensive (a return to neighborhood schools) or neutral (parking restrictions incorporated during the design phase), and others may actually be revenue positive (increased gas taxes). These thoughts are useful and important, but I honestly don’t hold for a top-down government solution. In my opinion it is far more likely that real change will come from the bottom up: quite literally by “voting with our feet”.
The effects of massive gasoline usage can be subtle; increased asthma rates in children due to breathing exhaust pollutants, decreased rainfall due to global warming; sea level rise flooding villages in Bangladesh. While the human burning of fossil fuels has definitively caused great harm to our health and our climate the connection is sometimes difficult to make. Now the connection is made plain to us in the images of the Gulf spill; one of oil’s many catastrophes: black liquid chugging relentlessly out into the ocean, dead oil-soaked birds staring out at us vacantly; sobbing fishermen wondering how they will ever work again to feed their families. At the same time we see the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward make stunningly selfish statements such as his now infamous “I’d like my life back”. We see the oil industry for what it really is: a profit generating machine; destroying lives and the environment for short-term gain. The gasoline that you pump into your tank didn’t magically appear at the gas station. It was pumped from somewhere, and some of it was almost certainly spilled in the process. The money that you pay for gasoline isn’t enriching the lives of the people from where it was pumped; it is lining the pockets of oil investors with billions of dollars per year. I hear people asking, “What can I do?” about the oil spill in the Gulf, “How can I help?” I saw recently that a program has been set up where you can automatically text a donation to the clean-up effort from your mobile phone; you get to feel good without getting your hands dirty, without effecting real change or doing real work. If you want to donate, by all means do so. But let’s be honest, neither BP nor we as concerned citizens can buy our way out of this problem. You want to punish BP, you want to stop this from happening again and continuing to happen to people in places like the Niger delta? It’s not about what you do…it’s about what you don’t do.
I know it isn’t easy to dramatically reduce our driving; to change our entire way of life. I don’t wish to trivialize what we need to do. But we have a choice. Anyone who has access to a computer, how has the luxury of reading a blog; has choices. You can choose to get in the car and burn the oil that was pumped out of the ground. Or you can choose to walk. What are you going to do?
Walk Baby Walk!