For the past 55 days or so, we have all been at least somewhat aware of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the people I know, reactions have ranged from sadness to anger to fear and even to nonchalance. Whatever the reaction, we all know it is happening and, I think, most people care. The problem is that most of us have no idea what the leak will do in the long term, or what we can do about it.
It is easy, in a situation like this, to see images of befouled birds and dead turtles and to point a big angry finger at the most easily recognizable target for our anger. That target is, of course, BP as they were the “owners” of the Deepwater Horizon well, and have stoked the fires of our rage by allowing their idiotic CEO to continue to speak, even after he has made several unforgivable gaffes. No doubt, BP needs to be held responsible for the damage of the leak and must be made accountable for the cost of cleanup and the loss of jobs along the Gulf Coast. However, the “hold BP accountable” battle cry, while satisfying in terms of providing a target, does little to affect any actual change, and may be distracting us all from the warning this disaster provides regarding our over dependance on fossil fuels.
One of the most visible forms of reaction to the leak is the 630,494 people strong “Boycott BP” facebook page. The page lists companies owned by BP, such as Safeway, Arco and Wild Bean Coffee, and asks members to boycott those brands and protest outside BP stations across the country. In addition to calling for the boycott, the page also provides news links and interviews with local fisherman and wildlife experts. On the surface, this plan seems like a good one right? As the children of Baby Boomers, we were raised to believe that we can affect change by voting with our wallets and taking our money to the companies which we believe to be responsible. On that line, if we avoid buying gas from BP, we are punishing them for their apparent negligence and sending the message that we are, well, angry with them.
As several news stories have pointed out, this approach is problematic at best and foolish at worst for a variety of reasons. First, all of the BP stations in the continental U.S. Are owned by individual franchise owners. The only profit that BP makes from them is the penny or so per gallon of gas sold. This means that by boycotting the station all together, one is actually boycotting a local business and removing their ability to support themselves while having very little effect on BP's bottom line. Isn't this one of the very things that has people so angry at BP in the first place? That they have destroyed hundreds of small businesses along the coast? I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that the call for a boycott is positioning itself so that two wrongs make a right. In fact, when asked about the damage that a boycott would do to independent businesses, the owner of the Boycott BP site mentioned that it was justifiable because of the loss of jobs in the Gulf area.
The second, and possibly more important, fact about the gas station boycott is that the call is to merely gas up at another station. Again, it seems logical. Don't like one company's practices? Take your business elsewhere. However, the problem with this is that the crude oil that BP is drilling is different from BP branded gasoline. BP's oil is sold to a variety of refineries and processing plants. This means that the gas at the Lukoil station across the street could very well have been made from BP oil and that, by purchasing that particular brand of gas, you are actually supporting the very company you are seeking to punish. Furthermore, nearly every item we purchase comes to us via oil based transport and most of them are made from, or contain some byproduct of, crude oil. This means that the plastic casing on your computer, your favorite lipstick or those hothouse tomatoes you ate last night may all have had a part in supporting BP.
The third problem with a boycott of BP based on their harmful and unsafe environmental practices fails to address the fact that ALL oil companies befoul the environment. It just happens in other, usually third world, countries. Our plastic goes to landfills in India, our refining waste is destroying the water in South America and much of our mineral and oil mining comes at the cost of human life throughout the world. George Carlin used to do a bit about how Americans only care about issues when they pop up right in front of them using the quote “Not in my backyard.” Sadly, the Gulf leak and the reaction to it has proven his point. We are angry that BP has shit in our backyard and want to do something about it. So, what can we do?
The simplest answer to that question is that we need to reduce the amount of petroleum we use. The problem with a simple answer, however, is that tends to leave us with a varieties of whys and hows.
In this case, the why seems pretty self explanatory: because, by continuing to use oil at this rate we are rapidly destroying the earth's ability to sustain us. It's the how that can be tricky. In a perfect world, we would all be able to simply stop driving, shop and eat locally, and decrease our dependance on fossil fuels quickly. However, this is not a perfect world and calls for total life changes are ineffective and short sited. Most people could not give up their cars without losing their jobs or ability to get around at all and most of us do not have the means to only eat from local sources.
This does not mean that there is nothing we can do. It only means that the changes that we need to make can be small and sustainable. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas. First, why not stop buying bottled water? I remember a time when bottled water was seen as a silly frivolity or something which popped up in the refrigerators of yuppies with too much disposable income. Now, those bottles are everywhere. Each one of those bottles is made from oil, shipped using oil, and disposed of via oil based transport. By not using them anymore, one can greatly reduce the amount of oil one is using, save a ton of money and stop looking like a pretentious douche when swilling from that bottle of Smart Water.
Can't give up the Evian? What about stopping at that farmer's market you pass on the way to the grocery store and supplementing your weekly food stash with just a few local items? You don't have to give up the big box grocery store altogether (although I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to), but every single local item you buy reduces the amount of oil you are using. Furthermore, if you live on the East Coast, like I do, why not grow some of you own veggies or herbs in the summer? Tomatoes and peppers can be grown in windows and require very little maintenance. Pull this one off and you are getting at least some of your food without driving at all.
Finally, when choosing products, why not choose the one that is going to last longest, as opposed to the least expensive. I know that it is easy to think of spending less as being more efficient financially, but if you think your decision out a little further, and consider the total cost of replacement when a cheap product breaks, buying the better built, more expensive product can actually save untold amounts of money and resources. You use less fuel to get to the purchase, make the purchase once instead of twice or more, use less resources in the manufacturing process and create less waste.
While the solutions I have offered will not fix the problem of the leak in the Gulf of Mexico, or give back those livelihoods which have been lost, they are small, painless steps which anyone can take. Instead of putting a band-aid on the bullet wound in our ability to sustain ourselves while the bullets of oil abuse as whizzing past out heads, why not try to cut back a bit, before the chance to do so is lost completely?