Unsuitable Conduct: Separate Messages at Gulf Restoration Council Meeting

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Don’t believe everything you see on Teevee

By David Underhill

MOBILE, Ala. – Feeding frenzy of suits. That could have been the caption on a picture from a downtown Mobile hotel where the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council staged its first meeting on December 11.

Federal law created this council to preside over the distribution of fines and other assessments against BP for its exploding offshore oil well. The secretary of commerce and the chief of the EPA sat at the head table, along with Alabama’s governor and various regional dignitaries.

The hotel swarmed with hundreds of suits in pursuit of the billions coming from BP. Trials and other proceedings will decide the total, and the council’s initial meeting offered the best chance yet toward grasping some of the money.

By law it’s supposed to repair damage from the loose crude oil and restore the coastal zone long assailed by progress and by increasingly unruly nature. This purpose is flexible enough that it might do more to revive the patronage power of crafty fixers than to fix the coast, environmentally or economically.

When the opening speeches ended, many of the suits bolted for the doors, presumably to gather in secluded places and dicker about dividing the spoils. The governor vanished too, along with some others from the front of the room and the big media cameras from the back.

The remaining rump council sat listening for a couple hours to a procession of speakers from the thinned audience. A few of these were local officials. Most were members of environmental organizations or simply concerned citizens.

They largely urged that the money not pad municipal budgets or pay for developers’ pet schemes. Instead, it should fund projects with durable environmental benefits, which would thereby boost the economy.

Little of this appeared in the standard media coverage of the meeting. None of the following did.

It is the statement by David Underhill of the Mobile Bay Sierra Club, fleshed out from the skeletal outline of his delivered remarks, which were a bit shorter because of time constraints on the speakers:

Several years ago the Mobile daily paper printed from its archives a picture of an outing a century or more old. It showed women in elegant attire carrying picnic baskets along the bay shore. You were supposed to notice the fashions of that era. I noticed the water.

The photo had been taken from a boat or platform a ways offshore in water a few feet deep. And you could see clear through it to the bottom of the bay! I had never seen the bottom of the bay, except in wading water a few inches deep.

This revelation provokes me to ask the council: Is it sufficient to restore something to an already damaged condition?

And to offer an answer: It is not sufficient to restore an energy economy prone to accident and catastrophe, regardless of how much it is reformed and regulated. We can’t afford to do this. And I don’t mean financially.

We can’t afford to revert to habits wrecking the climate that sustains life. That’s what we are doing by continuing and increasing the combustion of fossil fuels.

A presidential candidate in the recent election used global warming as a laugh line in his speeches. Joking about doomsday is cheap and easy because it has so often been a theme of apocalyptic cults and cranks. But anyone wringing humor from that topic now must number the Pentagon and the World Bank among the cultists and cranks because both have issued reports saying fumes from our fuels are cooking the planet, and a wrenching reckoning looms.

If we continue in that direction, the polar ice will melt and the edge of the ocean will be downstairs in the lobby of this hotel.

The Doha climate conference began with great expectations last month and ended last week after failing to grapple with the scope of this threat—as the Rio conference failed before that and the Copenhagen conference failed before that. This serial dereliction of international duty leaves folks like us in the audience to make gestures with light bulb purchases and driving practices. But you on the council have the resources and authority to make changes that matter at the level of whole systems.

You can begin—here and now—to turn away from stripping, gouging, drilling and pumping Nature to compel her to yield her buried strata. Instead, you can turn toward coaxing her to give energy from her ever refreshing bounty of wind and waves, sun and shoots.

That cannot be accomplished merely by decree and bureaucracy. It must be accompanied by sustained public support, which won’t flourish without two nourishing policies.

First: Jobs.

This does not mean the sort of jobs that exist only as incantations during campaigns to woo votes and that never materialize here in the promised numbers but in the Orient instead. And it does not mean a dribble of employment at meager pay.

It means simultaneously switching from jobs in fossil energy to renewable ones, rather than just expelling people from work in these antiquated industries. And that means consistent research, planning and financing to foster a new energy economy with visible mass employment at respectable wages during every stage of the switch.

This change is technologically possible, as various careful studies have shown. And it’s being done elsewhere. Germany, at Canadian latitudes, generates a large and growing share of its energy from solar sources. The Gulf Coast, nearly in the tropics, basks in such a solar surplus that air conditioning is for survival more than comfort. That’s a renewable inviting harvest, as are others.

But the change won’t be politically possible unless the public believes, on solid evidence, that jobs accompany it. The council can provide this assurance only by advancing projects enacting it.

Second: Reacquaint the public with what they are losing.

Then they will regain a fierce affection for it that demands effective action to protect it.

Among ordinary folks, only Powerball lottery winners could contemplate buying property on the shores of Mobile Bay or the gulf beaches. And without having land titles, simply getting to the water is a logistical challenge because the shoulder-to-shoulder private ownership of long stretches walls the public off from access. Nothing the council does to restore the region would be more effective than simply acquiring large, convenient, attractive tracts that invite people now penned up inland to return to the waters they emerged from.

Just upstream from here a promising expanse awaits. It was the proposed site for NASCAR DisneyWorld, as I call it—an imagined complex of racetracks and entertainment venues that crashed and burned with the economy a few years ago. Its wetlands, creeks and bayous feed directly into the river across the street.

That place could become a glorious park where citizens gather to remember their origins and to reflect on their future. Many other locations in the area could serve in the same way.

When people join in communion with creation, they will strive to nurture it rather than exploit it. Besides restoration projects, this calls for devotion to a gift we must care for rather than plunder.

Although a dog doesn’t know it’s unwise to drink from the toilet, every rational person knows. We also know that if you use the atmosphere as a sewer, you will eventually be inhaling and immersed in your own ruin.

The global energy industry apparently intends to rush heedlessly in this direction. But the rest of us don’t have to troop meekly along.

We must take restorative steps when somebody makes a giant mess and fails to correct it. While these are necessary janitorial functions, they are not enough.

Willing benign forms of energy into existence is also necessary. But that’s not enough either.

The council can, by its decisions, begin restoring us to an appreciation of our supportive role in a renewing and enduring creation. This summons us not only to develop prudent policies but also to perform hopeful acts of collective faith.

When you take the lead in doing this, then we can move together toward a way of living that allows us to see the bottom of the bay again.

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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