Yet Again

Yet again, our attention has focused on the devastating impacts of humanity’s oil addiction in the destruction of Southern California’s marine and coastal ecosystems. As of publication time, more than 150,000 gallons of heavy crude oil have leaked into the waters off Los Angeles and Orange Counties, spreading out in all directions to add to the existing stresses that already exist from decades of neglect. In just a few days, this spill has managed to kill or injure 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine mammals. It’s unclear how many fish were killed but, at these levels, the answer isn’t going to be any easier to stomach.

Perhaps most dispiritingly, we know from past experience – too many past experiences – that it takes about 30 years for coastal ecosystems to recover from an oil spill of this magnitude. The slick will dissipate to a point where we can’t easily see it and much of the oil will settle to the seafloor, but its damaging presence will be felt for decades.

Environmental response crews clean up oil that flowed near the Talbert Marsh and Santa Ana River mouth, creating a sheen on the water. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Environmental response crews clean up oil that flowed near the Talbert Marsh and Santa Ana River mouth, creating a sheen on the water. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

And why do we endure this calamity again? Our addiction to oil for energy and plastic manufacturing.

Oil is a global commodity so whether this petroleum was destined for a gas tank or polymer factory doesn’t matter – it was supporting an overall supply network that feeds both.

We’ve spoken recently about the connection between single-use plastic demand and the rising demand for fossil fuels to meet it. Keeping up with global demand pushes oil companies to pull supplies from the ground wherever it’s found – whether in a barren field on dry land or in a small deposit in coastal waters in Southern California. Either way, that disposable water bottle, disposable clamshell, disposable sauce cup, disposable plastic fork, disposable plastic bag and disposable coffee cup lid you saw go by in someone’s hand may well have been made from a portion of oil drilled out of that California well.

Was it really worth it? Was that convenient grab-n-go sandwich really so convenient when we think about the 30-year recovery time of this spill – not to mention the centuries it’ll take for that clamshell to break down? No, it turns out to be pretty inconvenient.

Pre-packaged sandwiches displayed in a commercial refrigerator

When you think about the mess we make on this planet mining the materials we need to make our disposable plastic products, and the mess we make throwing them away, it’s hard to understand how the few minutes of pleasant use can be justified. 

We cannot move too fast in getting ourselves unaddicted to these cheap and damaging products. There’s not much rebound left in our oceans and other natural spaces. We’ve been kicking and punching and knocking them around for a century already. 

Now it’s high time to give them a chance to heal for the sake of future generations.

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