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The Disastrous Cost of Oil Addiction

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Posted on May 5, 2011

By Douglas Brinkley

Not since Rachel Carson wrote her sea trilogy—“Under the Sea-wind,” “The Sea Around Us” and “The Edge of the Sea”—has a conservationist written about marine ecosystems with the factual elegance of Carl Safina. His 1997 book “Song for the Blue Ocean” jarred readers about the tragic diminution of numerous fish species: bluefin tuna, white marlin, swordfish. Safina, a marine biologist, has positioned himself as a protector of the seas, a man in communion with dolphins and whales. Other Safina books have dealt with leatherback turtles, Laysan albatross, shellfish stocks—any and everything that grapples with the health of the world’s oceans.

In “A Sea in Flames,” his newest installment, Safina investigates the impact of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. There isn’t much politics in this cogent analysis. Whether the Obama administration acted quickly enough during the crisis isn’t Safina’s primary concern, though his profiles of several key players are riveting. His kinship is with two tribes of people: gulf fishermen and marine biologists. “Crucial mistakes, disastrous consequences, the weakness of power, unpreparedness and overreaction, the quiet dignity of everyday heroes,” he writes. “The 2010 Gulf of Mexico blowout brought more than oil to the surface.”

Safina uses the spill, which gushed about 4.9 million barrels of crude for three months and killed 11 men, as a national learning moment. To villainize BP CEO Tony Hayward, he argues, misses the larger point: The industrial nations of the world are recklessly destroying oceans everywhere. Look in the mirror, he suggests: The culprit is all of us fossil-fuel addicts. 

Back in 2008 around 300 exploratory wells were dug in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. Very few Americans questioned the environmental damage inherent in such activity. “Our everyday use of fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere,” Safina warns, “ruining the world’s oceans.” He garners credibility by being evenhanded. Doing some complicated math, he argues that the mixing of millions of gallons of BP oil with the Gulf’s 660 quadrillion gallons of water allowed the oil to easily dilute. But the carbon dioxide we’re emitting into the atmosphere, he scolds, isn’t being diluted. It’s building up in an extremely toxic way.


book cover


A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout


By Carl Safina


Crown, 368 pages


Buy the book

Safina suggests that the oceans are Earth’s lungs and they’re smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Sea water is getting more acidic due to carbon dioxide. This spells dire consequences for oceans, which are losing habitats ranging from glaciers to tropical reefs at an astonishing rate. “Because we’ve bet the house on burning oil, coal, and gas,” he writes, “our atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide is a third higher now than at the start of the Industrial Revolution.”

At the end of “A Sea in Flames,” Safina is desperate to close the deal against fossil fuels. His previously steady and nuanced prose turns polemical. He reminds us that oil is making undemocratic countries like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia powerful. Petro dictators, he charges, are stoking anti-Americanism all over the world. If we don’t get behind a Marshall Plan-like program for renewable energy, it seems, China will surpass America as the world’s superpower.

Carbon dioxide, the killer of Earth, can be slain only by consumers who are aware of how hideous oil, coal and gas truly are to the atmosphere and oceans, Safina argues. The smartest way to respond to the Gulf disaster shouldn’t have been cleaning birds or picking up turtles or spraying 1.84 million gallons of Corexit 9500. Instead, an infuriated citizenry should have pulled the subsidies out from under Big Petroleum. Tax the oil conglomerates out of business. It’s still not too late. Better to be, as Safina puts it, “shocked at the pump” than dead in the water.

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University. His most recent book is “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom 1879-1960.”

(c) 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/ Washington Post Writers Group


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By rollzone, May 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment

hello again. Oak Ridge National Laboratories. MIT. Berkeley. those have dramatic proven advances in
solar energy efficiency and productivity, afford
ability and reason ability. Europeans are making
further advances. China will attempt to dethrone the
oil barons. lacking a coherent national energy policy
here, Americans must purchase a “Volt” capable of
220MPG: but manufactured to get only 38mpg. gasoline
tax funds campaigns, gasoline profits fund global
conquests. when will information technologies replace
the oil barons? when electricity costs too much from
fossil fuels to power their products, and still be
able to fund revenue for their advertisers. the oil
barons will price themselves into extinction.

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By Clash, May 8, 2011 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Overwhelming belief in the the certainty of facts can be quite amusing, as certainty by induction is clearly based in unreason, unreason is that which disguises madness. Madness is the disease that infects the homosapien, and drives his absolute obsession for comfort and certainty, or the image of that obsession in error. This madness infects the total population in one way or another, to greater or lessor extremes.

These images are projected not only in personal dreams but also in the delusional propaganda used by theocrats, politicians and technocrats to insure production (death). These delusions supported by the grand mass hallucination of a personal reality that is infinite, create the absurdity of the now. This is the ultimate unreason used to disguise the infectious madness so vehemently denied.

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By prisnersdilema, May 8, 2011 at 8:15 am Link to this comment

We have had the technology to get 100 miles to the gallon since the 60’s, but that
technology has been suppressed. This along with many other types of free energy
including cold fusion, zero point energy, and anti gravitic propulsion systems. Some of
these exotic forms of energy are used in black budget projects of the Defense
Departments, to power ARV’s.  This is a fact available to anyone with intelligence
enough to do a little research.

While denying the existence of global warming, many wealthy conservatives have been
preparing for it by buying bunkers in record numbers.

This beautiful blue dot in the cosmos is being destroyed, by the greed, of a few soulless
monsters.  Mankind has a right to protect this planet from destruction, that transcends
any legal protections that those monsters enjoy from the governments that they have
bribed into inaction.

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By kerryrose, May 8, 2011 at 5:27 am Link to this comment

This blog is about Carl Safina.  I have read a couple of his books and he makes me aware of beauties that I have never seen- like the blue fin tuna and the albatross- and he extends my empathy farther.

That said, he is basically non-political.  He has his own opinions, but he endeavors to share the point of view of all sides (backing up most non-conservationist views with disputing hard date, though).

The fact that he is non-political is a shame.  His books make for sublime casual reading but lack the punch of Rachel Carson whose books started a political battle that ended DDT use.  Safina writes to the heart, but there is a missing element to his books that could actually provide change.  I don’t know what his missing element is, but I hope he figures it out.

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By DaveZx3, May 8, 2011 at 5:24 am Link to this comment

By tedmurphy41, May 8 at 4:34 am Link to this comment

“You should be asking yourselves just who is running America and for whose benefit”.

Well, it’s no secret there.  Americans hated that electric car, and those who bought it wished they never had.   

The conspiracy theorists think Americans will buy anything industry tries to shove down their throat, but nothing could be further from the truth.

They had to scrap a bunch of Edsels a long while back also, because it sucked.  It was a terrible car.  There are quite a few products which never caught the fancy of the public and had to be scrapped. 

Money doesn’t come that easy that we can plop it down to buy every stupid-ass idea that comes out of the minds of bonehead industrialists.  We carefully analyze all of the stupid-ass things that we buy to make sure it either makes us more popular with girls or gives us a big, big rush. 

BTW, I don’t see anyone standing in line to buy the chevy volt so far either.  For one thing it costs too much, and for another, it is tiny.  Gas will have to go up to $10 to get people interested in those little things, IMO. OF course ecology-minded rich lefties will buy them sight unseen, but the rest of us have to make sure we get value first. 

Everything is not a conspiracy by corporatists.  Americans know how to say, No when they want to, and a midget car that has to be plugged in all the time is going to take a while to catch on, unless gasoline hits $10, which I am sure it will, by accident or on purpose, probably the latter if Obama has his way. 

But oil is back under $100 a barrel, and so the average joe is feeling pretty good again about his 4WD truck.  My neighbor just went out and bought a Cadillac Escalade, (12mpg) saying if Al Gore and Bon Jovi can own one, why can’t he?  And they say that Americans are little sheeple, but you have to be pretty fearless to plunk down 60gs on a gas guzzler when there are three wars in the mid-east, fought not to stabilize the oil supply, but just the opposite. 

There is a certain relationship between Americans and their cars which transcends sanity.  So the Volt may have to be scrapped as well.

Don’t ever think that Americans don’t spend their money on anything they damn well please, legal or illegal.

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By tedmurphy41, May 8, 2011 at 4:34 am Link to this comment

You should be asking yourselves just who is running America and for whose benefit.
1997 saw the introduction of an electric car and, not so long after, the scrapping of it.
Try, if you can, to get some answers.
A lot of people have tried, previously, to get answers to this question in your supposedly, open society.

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By Spooky-43, May 7, 2011 at 10:55 pm Link to this comment

It is a myth of the political eco-left that there is this addiction to oil, and that these “addicts” are ravenously devouring the planet for their own lustful pleasures.  This characterization is absurd and absolutely untrue.

Virtually no one, given the choice, would choose oil over a cleaner, cheaper energy source, including the oil barons.  Barons become barons by giving the public what they want, not by dictating what they want, (again, contrary to leftist anti-corporate propaganda).  And the public wants clean energy, but they just can’t afford it now, for various reasons.

But make no mistake about it, the public could shut down the oil industry immediately if everyone rode bikes to work, and heated their homes with electricity.  But no one wants to take 2 hours or more to get to work, especially in the rain or snow, and electricity is much more expensive, so the energy revolution is delayed. 

Right now, it is mainly an economic problem.  People perceive that they do not have enough money to afford the current clean energy solutions, and for the main part, they are right. 

We need a technological breakthrough, a source of energy which is clean, cheap and convenient to operate in addition to easy to convert to, and the revolution will be over in a matter of months, guaranteed. 

It’s coming, thousands are working on it, and whoever breaks through with a legitimate product will become a hero, and an ultra-rich one at that, at least while the patent holds out. 

Right now, I think most look at putting expensive solar collectors all over their property or putting a bunch of bird-killing windmills all over the landscape, and they realize that these are not really the answer.  They sense that the real thing will be a machine, no bigger than a small refrigerator, which will sit in their basement or trunk of their car and convert some very inexpensive fuel into heat or torque, with no adverse ecologigical considerations. 

It is the kind of breakthrough that transforms civilizations.  It will be a no-brainer, and there will be no resistance from any quarter.  Fortunes will be made and fortunes will be lost, and nothing can stop that, but very, very few will really begrudge it.  Those that do will be powerless to impede it. 

In the meantime, it does not hurt for the public to be “chicken little” about it, following the lead of the convenient, but mostly false story of the eco-left, frantically pushing for the development of clean energy to keep moving ahead.  Gasoline doubling in price would help also, as would the government butting out.

But in the end, the stakes are high enough that even the mega-billions of the oil industry cannot impede the progress much.  My worry is that some government eco-do-gooder, would be purchased by the wind and/or solar industries, and that current technology in these areas will be government subsidized to an extreme extent, thus insuring that this technology will be the only alternatives for the forseeable future. 

The government, obviously influenced by lobbyists on the right and the left, must leave the development process alone, and let the consumer decide when the right technology comes along to bring about the revolution.  The average family needs not only clean, but cheap & convenient, and when that comes along, the revolution will happen.  The ideologists, and government types are too quick to jump in with only “clean”, and that would just slow down the eventual true revolution. 

The people are not stupid.  The people rule (regardless of what you hear).  The people will decide.  POWER TO THE PEOPLE.  (No pun intended)

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By rollzone, May 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

hello. we are not addicts to fossil fuels. we are not
allowed a choice. the dependency is dictatorial
mandates by oil barons. we would gladly convert to no
fossil fueled automobiles, if the oil barons could in
some way struggle to get by without their gasoline

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By John poole, May 6, 2011 at 9:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

SOYLENT GREEN’s premise was lthatthe oceans were dead leading to the necessity
of eating the deceased as a wafer. Overpopulation was the reason which was
partially correct. We are addicted to our infernal combustion engines. We can
wean ourselves. I no longer take rides on my motorcycle but use it only for work.
My pedal bike is used if the destination is within a few miles-weather permitting.

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By Myronh, May 6, 2011 at 6:15 am Link to this comment

Where are the voices of reason now? There have been billions of key-strikes made on Bin Laden, but not even one comment about the effect we are having on the sea/our life-line.

When will we awaken to the real disaster that will only grow as we continue to consume more oil?

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