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Seeing Past the BP Spill
Alex Steffen, 16 Jun 10

We've gotten a few inquiries lately about why we aren't devoting a lot more discussion to the BP Spill. After all, isn't this the "worst environmental disaster in American history?" Shouldn't a site whose purpose is to explore solutions to planetary problems be all over the planet's most visible current problem?

In a word, no. The decision not to cover the BP Spill has been fairly straightforward for us: we don't do problems, unless we're covering them in order to explain how a solution could work, or unless a new analysis of a problem is so telling that it changes the way we understand how it could be solved. The BP Spill is huge, but not particularly unique.

The BP Spill will almost certainly go down as the decade's most visible industrial accident. The BP corporate leaders involved ought probably to go to jail. The wetlands and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico will suffer horrible environmental degradation. Local people will suffer the loss of their ways of life and of places they love, as well as health effects. The impact on the marine life of the Gulf is as yet unknowable.

Yet, while the BP Spill is the biggest single oil spill we here in America have experienced, in terms of overall impact, it's just a drop in our pollution bucket. Thousands of major spills happen around the world each year. Even in terms of oil spilled in North America, this disaster is small compared to business as usual: more than 90% of all the oil spilled in North America comes from oil leaked from cars (or poured down drains) finding its way to the sea, according to a landmark 2002 report; in the Puget Sound region alone, more oil is leaked from cars and home use every two years than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

And oil spills are far from the worst environmental disasters we've unleashed and are in the process of unleashing through the routine operation of our economy as currently designed. Climate change will over the next century almost certainly prove far more destructive to the natural systems and human communities of the Gulf than any oil spill ever could, and that's a problem the Deepwater rig would have worsened if it had worked perfectly, as part of its successful operation. And, as we've mentioned here before, climate change is only the largest problem in a set of interconnected problems that stem from transgressing our planetary boundaries, problems that include massive extinctions, marine deadzones, desertification, and ocean acidification. The entire living fabric of our planet is being shredded, and human communities irreparably harmed, by the systems that deliver our prosperity.

The key word here is systems. Unless we understand the problems we face as systemic problems, we don't really understand them at all and can't do much about them. Unless we understand that we need to redesign and rebuild the systems that support modern life on a massive scale, very quickly, we're essentially missing the point, and guaranteeing that the destruction of the planet's biosphere will continue.

Few in the American political landscape are willing to use the oil spill to point to the real nature of our challenges. What the BP Spill tells us is not that we need tougher environmental laws, or a ban of offshore oil exploration, or even a national clean-energy strategy. What the BP Spill tells us, if we're really paying attention, is that the American economy needs systemic change, now. Even with tougher laws, bans on drilling and massive subsidies for wind and solar, the systems we depend upon for our way of life will be violently and cataclysmically destructive: the BP Spill is just a small manifestation of a massively larger problem. We need to be embracing an entirely different set of solutions right now. Political leaders in the US and worldwide need to move beyond short-term thinking and think big, think connected, and think ahead.

In failing to see that the BP Spill is a symptom, we also make it easy to blame the wrong people for the failures of the systems we now use. I've read dozens of pieces parroting the opinion that the BP Spill is all of our faults; that because we all use oil, we've all been responsible for making this happen. That's just stupid. Leaving aside entirely the fact that this particular spill itself appears to be the result of unethical and possibly criminal leadership within BP, the simple fact is that we continue to use so much oil largely because Big Oil, the car companies, the road-building lobby and sprawl developers have engaged in one of the largest sustained political efforts in history to keep us using as much oil as possible by blocking climate legislation and gas taxes, fighting smart growth laws and new public transportation investments, stalling higher mileage standards in new cars, channeling trillions of dollars into new roads and auto infrastructure, gutting water- and air-quality laws, even (arguably) getting a former oil man (George W.) elected, which resulted in a war for oil and general atmosphere of climate denialism. We burn oil in such astonishing quantities because those who profit from selling and using oil have all but run the American political system for the last ten years, and exerted decades of dominant influence before that.

In that light, our personal behaviors are essentially meaningless, especially if they aren't part of a larger effort to identify ways of changing our cities, transportation, agriculture and energy systems to function much more sustainably. If we want to change our impacts, we need to change our systems, on a scope we almost never talk about, stretching through essentially every aspect of our society.

Discussing how we might do that -- how we might find solutions that work at the scope, scale and speed we need -- is what Worldchanging does. We've published more than 11,000 essays, interviews, stories and blog posts about what those sorts of solutions might look like, how they might work, how we might actually begin to implement them. Exploring how we might actually build a bright green future -- one that offers the prosperity we all demand with the sustainability we need -- is what we do every day, day after day, as we have for almost seven years.

So you won't see many pictures of oil-soaked pelicans or congressional hearings here. If you stick around, though, you might find some new ideas about how to build a future that works. Scope, scale and speed is the name of the game now. As we launch into a set of new editorial initiatives over the summer, we'll be doing our best to report on solutions that offer all three.

Feature image on homepage from a flight over the Gulf Coast operations on June 13 courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

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Hmmm. I have quarrels with the bright green future but do applaud these comments. It is indeed a systemic problem that calls for deep changes in how we imagine our lives. But then, that is a really good reason to cover it -- to elaborate on how our current economic, technological and social paradigms lead to such disasters. It doesn't take oil-soaked pelicans to do that. It might even lead to discussions about human contentment and how the bright green future addresses that.

Posted by: John Faust on 16 Jun 10

Just a comment on the assertion "In that light, our personal behaviors are essentially meaningless . . . If we want to change our impacts, we need to change our systems, on a scope we almost never talk about, stretching through essentially every aspect of our society."

Would it not follow then that as individuals we should be insistent that the conversation addressing these systemic issues actually takes place? People elect governments and can influence public policy.

If you're not impressed with current energy and environmential policy write, call or meet directly with your elected officials. Campaign contributions notwithstanding, they still need your vote and your support to attain/remain in office.

Posted by: Bob Macdonald on 17 Jun 10

Yes, Bob, absolutely we should be demanding that conversation.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 Jun 10

As Paul Hawken points out: 40 years after the first Earth Day every living system is in decline and the rate of that decline is accelerating.

And Einstein- the same type of thinking that got us here is not going to get us out.

So address the roots: education. It's not a problem of improving education (b/c the more "educated" do the most damage). It's about changing education. Kids can, and need to, become systems thinkers.

See you outside,
Tim Magner

Posted by: Tim Magner on 17 Jun 10

Excellent commentary, Alex. Dana Meadows wrote something similar a little over 20 years ago.

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Jun 10

If rapid dissemination of the kinds of wealth originating from within a "systems" approach is a big part of the "solution" resolution (& I believe it is : ) then perhaps this'll help:

"In contrast to the reductionist, deterministic and uni-directional cause-and-effect thinking of classical science, systems philosophy brings forth a reorganization of ways of thinking. It creates a new worldview, a new paradigm of perception and explanation, which is manifested in integration, holistic-thinking, purpose-seeking, mutual causality and process-focused inquiry."
Bela H. Banathy (p. 31 & 32, "Systems Design of Education, A Journey to Create the Future", 1991)

Posted by: paul t. horan on 18 Jun 10

Thank you for an enlightened news reference site. I am focused on doing articles that reflect the need to make system-wide changes, and I notice your articles do a lot for that.

Posted by: Carol Forsloff on 20 Jun 10

While I do understand your point about oil making its way to rivers and streams, I think you are selling this catastrophe short. You say "The BP Spill will almost certainly go down as the decade's most visible industrial accident." This to me, appears to minimize what is happening in the gulf. This oil spill will be and most likely already is, the largest oil spill in history. There is no guarantee that this oil spill can even be stopped. Oil is starting to seep up through the ocean floor around the drilling site now and the shaft is eroding and getting larger all the time. Because it is so deep in the ocean, almost all of the oil is not even visible, due to the fact that it is submerged in the ocean as giant globs. There is a distinct possibility that this well will never be stopped. This article is startling, worth a look:

I agree that we as a world wide community need to get off from oil as a form of energy, the problem is that there has been few alternatives that are economically viable. Nuclear energy has potential to replace oil but that has definite risks as well. Until there is a viable alternative to oil, coal or nuclear power for energy, we will always be mitigating risk in return for energy. Unfortunately, solar, wind, hydro energy will never be a solution. I think nuclear is the best short term solution. Not perfect but I do think it is something that rivals oil in cost and has become quite safe.

Posted by: Charles Rissew on 20 Jun 10

I am a layperson. I am constantly assessing the worldwide problem of degradation of our earth. I am not an expert but I would like to say that what individuals do to prevent further degradation is important. I do believe that individuals can make a difference. Right now the pressure is on individuals to obey the corporate/governmental/marketing folks. Even common sense individuals are willing to take personal responsibility but they have a difficult time seeing through the gauze of the marketeers. As an example, I don't use AC and am constantly battling against my family and friends to use it. I am looked upon as strange rather than an example of how to live without AC. Just one example of the pressure laid upon individuals that choose to take personal responsibility of Mother Earth. Yes, you could claim it as meaningless, but why not look at it as steps in the right direction. Instead of thinking trickle down think trickle upwards. To use a cliche, "build it and they will come." Just my non-expert feelings. I so find all your articles good for discussion and ideas for the future. -- barbara

Posted by: barbara on 22 Jun 10

With regards to the comment, "In that light, our personal behaviors are essentially meaningless...", I have given this a lot of thought. Alex is right -- just one coal-burning powerplant can render a thousand individual actions irrelevant; and likewise, just one well-written law can induce a million actions which would not have been taken otherwise. However, the role of individual action in changing the political landscape and cultural inertia should not be underestimated.

I like to think of Bright Green as similar to the civil rights movements of the 1960's. The collective mass of thousands of individual actions changed the political landscape enough that the required legislation was enacted, and the system underwent significant transformation. The system would not change unless the system's members willed it, yet a system does not change on the will of the individuals alone. THAT required laws to be written. And once the laws were written, society slowly shifted to the point where racial equality is just accepted as the self-evident norm.

Living without AC will not save the planet. But it can help change our culture's inertia enough that laws will be written and policies changed until society shifts to the point that closed-loop sustainable zero-impact systems are simply accepted as the self-evident norm.

Posted by: Geoffrey Mantel on 24 Jun 10


This is exactly what our message should be right now.

Brilliant article.

Posted by: Casper ter Kuile on 25 Jun 10

It seems that nothing was learned from the Santa Barbara oil spill in the 1960's on the California coast.

Posted by: Sports Picks on 1 Jul 10

I think it can be considered absolutely the worst environmental disaster in American history...Usa government must invest on renawable energies that are yet availables for everyone!!
Take a look at this, as example: build own solar panels

Posted by: james on 2 Jul 10

I would hardly call the BP oil spill "just a drop in our pollution bucket". It is a hell of a lot more than a "drop". However I do agree that "the American economy needs systemic change, now"!
The United States and the rest of the world needs to get away from using oil. The technologies are there. Why aren't we using electric cars? If we can send a man into space we sure as hell can develop safe affordable electric cars!

Posted by: Darren Zahradnik on 4 Jul 10

Great article, but clearly the Government is not taking as much concern?

Posted by: Lily on 5 Jul 10

I think you should make your stories a little shorter.Check out

Posted by: Bob Macdonald on 5 Jul 10

I agree that we should focus on bringing forth solutions instead of being bogged down in complaining about problems. Too many people do that and of course, it doesnt change anything. However, I would make the oil spill a bigger subject because the immediate challenge is how to clean it up and get the leak closed, if we dont do that any future long-term solution talk is pretty pointless.

We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. - Oscar Wilde
RoHs compliant: IronKey

Posted by: Dennis on 5 Jul 10

It seems like everyone is trying to figure out how this accident could have happened. Isn't it possible that it was not an accident? Shouldn't the first order of business be to determine whether or not it was in fact an accident? When someone drops dead unexpectedly, isn't the first order of business to decide who would have something to gain by the death, a motive? Why are we ignoring common sense?overcoming panic attacks

Posted by: overcoming panic attacks on 8 Jul 10

Very good article. BP has to do the impossible which is to correct something they cannot. about me

Posted by: Darryl on 8 Jul 10

The government have never really cared though. BP should have had better plans in place incase this happened. It's shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Impossible task for BP, you bet.

Posted by: Geoff Greenback on 1 Aug 10

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