Monday, May 10, 2010

I like a good oil spill now and then.

When I was about 9 years old I had a dream that I’ve never shared with anyone. This dream was transformative, it changed the way I look at everything we do. In the dream a wall of my house was given special powers so that I could walk through it and experience the world 40 years or so into the future. Some of the stuff I saw was cool, for instance, I could hold in my hand a thin, flat, handheld screen on which I could read color, animated comic strips. But most of the dream was disturbing because of the sudden contrast in how the world had change in 40 years. The sky was a slightly different color, the plants weren’t quite the same, and there were more people. What got to me most was that the air smelled different, not an extreme difference but a subtle difference only noticeable to someone who could suddenly jump 40 years in time and smell old air versus new air—the people of the future didn’t notice that the world smelled different because it had happened gradually, over 40 years. “What’s that smell?” I’d ask, and they’d say “I don’t smell anything.”

What I got out of the dream was this: the accumulated actions of billions of people have consequences they don’t see, and unfortunately will not see without a magical time-traveling wall.

The billions don’t see; but I see. When I turn on a light switch, a TV, or this computer, I see an oil or coal plant pumping through fuel, polluting the air, depleting resources, and I see it magnified billions of times and I see the world looking different and it smells different. When I drive down the road I see, in my rearview mirror, the ugly gas expand out of my tiny Metro tailpipe, and I see larger clouds of out of the tailpipes of the giant SUVs, and I see it all magnified around the world by a billion other drivers. When I look up at a plane in the sky I always see a dark trail of oil behind it—it’s ugly. I see similar things when I purchase stuff, discard stuff, warm up with heating and cool down with air conditioning. The thought of spawning offspring (and the generations that would follow) brought more visions than I could bear to see, so I had that possibility snipped in the bud.

And yet I turn on lights, and drive, and fly, and I feel awful about it. This seeing is a curse. I hate it.

So when there’s a good oil spill now and then, and oil leaks into the ocean, and beaches and fisheries are closed, and oil-soaked seabirds was ashore mingled with dead turtles, I get a sense of schadenfreude that warms my heart just a little and I think “there, now you all clearly see what I see all the time. Welcome to my world. Sucks, don’t it.”

As I write this, an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking each day from the latest oil spill, and people are upset over the environmental tragedy. But here’s the thing: if that oil well weren’t leaking that same amount of oil would still be going into the environment, it would just be going into the environment in ways that are more invisible (except to those of use who have had time-travel dreams). Instead of leaking into one relatively small location that is very visible, that oil would be spread around the world in diluted, much-less-visible leaks, in the form of gasoline, auto and power-plant emissions, fertilizer, food, clothing, plastic bags, lipstick, and on and on. It’s the same amount of oil, just spread around a lot so most of us don’t see it.

Think of the movie “The Great Escape”. The prisoners are digging a long tunnel under the prison, but how do they the dirt they’ve removed? They can’t just put a big pile of dirt somewhere, so they cleverly spread it all around the camp, one small handful of dirt at a time, slow and diffuse enough so the guards don’t notice.

That 5,000 barrels per day leak into the environment one way or another, right? 5000 barrels per day is a lot of oil. But at the current rate, worldwide, we extract oil from the ground (i.e. leak oil into the environment) at about the rate of 1,000 barrels every second. In other words, the recent news-headlining oil leak represents only 5 seconds (or 0.006%) of the world’s daily oil use. The other 99.994% of oil we extract every day is leaking from somewhere else that’s more diffuse and relatively hidden and far from our shores, and so we don’t pay attention to it.

That’s just oil. This morning’s news starts with another coal-mining-disaster-of-the-week story, with 32 killed in a Siberian coal mine and 58 still missing. Don’t even get me started on my coal visions.

I don’t know why it has taken me nearly 40 years to tell anyone about my dream with the time-portal wall. Maybe with some imagination you can imagine your own magic wall that lets you see how our actions today affect the world in 40 years. How does it look? What’s that smell?