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Realism will save the environment, not wishful thinking

July 23, 2010

The Guardian recently featured a piece called Would Obama’s ocean drive have stopped BP? written by Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana, which according to his profile is the ‘world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation’. Passing over the issue of whether one can be a ‘nonprofit’, I’m frustrated by one aspect of this well-meaning clarion call from an influential environmentalist. That aspect is a shocking lack of realism, and it permeates so much of environmental thinking, or so it seems to me.

Sharpless makes commendable observations about the health of our oceans, but framing them in the context of the Gulf oil spill leads him to say something that seem, frankly, rather daft:

In the end, the only way to prevent an oil spill is to not drill in the first place.

How is it Sharpless can be the head of a major environmental organisation, yet fail to distinguish between good intention and realistic propositions? In the developed world, the demand for petro-chemical products is likened to an addiction. Our dealers are exactly as ruthless and manipulative as the Colombian cartels when it comes to providing our daily fix, because they know we won’t need them if we ever break the habit. All they have to do is keep digging the stuff up, sucking it out of the ground wherever they can find it.

Costs? Who cares? When you’re addicted you will, in the end, pay whatever your dealer demands. In any case, as every oil dealer knows, as one western market transitions towards renewables, the nu-junkies in the developing world will dig deep in a last ditch attempt to catch up with us.

Risks to coastal communities, fishing industries, tourism etc? Ask any government what they want – oil for industry and infrastructure, petrol and heating, or happy fishermen – and I don’t think any of us will be surprised by the answer, given the collusion between many governments and the fossil fuel industry to date.

Given the relentless advance of peak oil, our staggering failure to see it coming and address it with sensible strategies, instead we are victims of our leaders’ complacency, and will be for generations. Sharpless must know this, and he should also know that calling for measures that cannot possibly be implemented now, let alone when demand seriously exceeds supply, is not a credible way to argue for better stewardship of our planet.

There will come a tipping point when demand for oil passes its peak, but global population and myths about economic expansion will have to be brought back to earth before we reach some measure of energy stability. In the meantime it will be a very rough ride, and calling for an artificial limit on energy production is as unlikely as it would be destabilising.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2010 6:45 pm

    Thanks for calling out starry-eyed idealism as well as cynical myopia. Both are dangerous, particularly as they collude in obstructing realistic ways of improving our situation (even if the problems are not “solved”, the crash can be softened a little).

  2. July 24, 2010 12:49 am

    Well put Graham!
    You’re absolutely right and it’s the say tone I hear all around. It’s a bit like Palin barking on Fox that Obama needs to stop the leak: loudly pointing out the end result does nothing to provide answers of how to reach it.
    The problem is, as you say, complacent governments. They must be privy to the reality of peaking oil, climate change and new techs. There should be more discussion and development to change our habits beyond this addition… but is it too far out of their term in office to be concerned about?

  3. July 26, 2010 5:04 am

    In order to cause a global shift to ‘save’ the environment, people have to believe there is a reason for a global shift necessary, such as global warming.

  4. July 26, 2010 10:43 am

    Grunergy, dangerous anthropogenic climate change is one reason, but it far from the only one, or even probably the most serious. I’ve compiled a partial list here. Almost any one of these would be reason to question our present assumptions and practices. Climate change is a problem partially because it is a multiplier for many of these other issues.

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