Whose Problem?

“The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight,” Obama said. “Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

Republicans seized on the president’s approach as further evidence of what they say is his over-reliance on the government to solve the nation’s biggest challenges.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said that “the White House may view this oil spill as an opportunity to push its agenda in Washington, but Americans are more concerned about what it plans to do to solve the crisis at hand.”

From the Washington Post report on the President’s address last night

I fail to see why saving the Gulf is the President’s problem, especially if a government solution is not the answer.

Over the last three months, we have had demonstration after demonstration of catastrophes caused by our reliance on oil, gas, and coal to fuel our apparently insatiable desire for more stuff.  The largest coal-mining disaster in more than a generation, more coal mining deaths, two Marcellus shale gas well explosions, the Gulf  oil disaster.  All above the constant background reports of streams killed – everything dead on 40 miles of Dunkard Creek last summer, a small boy’s mouth full of rotting teeth on the front page of the New York Times last summer, streams all over the coal fields with heavy metals, high salt, low life; all sorts of health and behavioral problems traced to lead, not from paint in the slums, but lingering from leaded gasoline a generation ago, to plastics, almost all coal-derived or petrochemicals,  leaching into our food and water; black lung on the rise in the coalfields again; not to mention climate change,  including a long and snowy winter, caused by a warmer Arctic, which will not be unusual in the future.

This week, we had another round of floods in the southern coal fields of West Virginia.  Like the ones in the past, last month, last year, they are made much worse if not completely caused by strip-mining and mountain-top removal of the mountains above the streams.  Now, the residents of those valleys expect the government, state and federal, to come help them rebuild.  Those residents, by and large, are the same people who are opposed to the government, state and federal, regulating the coal industry.  They are not alone.  Most of the country seems to expect the federal and state governments to rescue and rebuild the Gulf of Mexico, the same most of the country that didn’t want off-shore drilling banned or regulated.

BP, Massey Energy, the oil and gas and coal industries in general, and our own greed, are responsible.  When I graduated from college, about a third of our oil was foreign; now two-thirds is.  We used far less electricity then, and only a quarter of us thought air-conditioning was a necessity; by 2007, almost three-quarters of us did.  We have built huge houses, on average 2,300 square feet, up from 1,600 when I graduated from college, and we expect to keep those houses at 72 degrees or so, no matter how hot or cold outside.  We have moved to places where air-conditioning is very nearly a necessity, and built houses and offices that made it so.  A quarter of us now own two homes.  Three-quarters of us drive to work, alone, and our average commuting time has almost doubled from 15 minutes to half an hour.  We expect strawberries, tomatoes, and roses in the dead of winter, and fresh lettuce trucked across country.  When the electricity goes off and it is below freezing outside, we think we have no choice but to let the food in the freezer spoil. Not to mention the electronics, the kitchen “small electrics”, the aluminum cans, the bottled water trucked across the country and the resulting plastic bottles,the dozens of sets of clothing, disposables of all sorts, and the chemicals and equipment to clean all that stuff.

We are not only the government, with the power, ultimately, to tell our legislators what we agree is against our best interests and banned or taxed, but we are also the consumers who decide what to buy, and the workers who decide where to work and how to do that work.  Just as we know better than to run our gutters  on to the neighbor’s property or along our own foundation, or to dump our trash in our yard or the neighbor’s, or spend more than we earn (or maybe we don’t), we should know by now that our way of life is unsustainable.  We have banned DDT and leaded gasoline, we have cleaned up the flaming rivers, and the air in some of our cities.  It is possible for us to change, and it is possible that our lives will be better for it, not just because we are not destroying the land we live on, but because stuff is not what makes us truly happy.

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel

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