Louisiana Gulf Memories

June 11, 2010

Though I can’t remember exactly where we were, I do remember the tremendous fishing.  I remember my dad and the early morning wakeup and  the long boat ride in the salty morning air.  I remember the hilarious and warm charter boat captain.  Some of the best fishing we had was directly off the oil rigs.  When we got there the workers would play music over the  loudspeaker system and we would pull up red snapper after red snapper.  I definitely remember the delicious eating in the weeks after we returned to Chicago.

In the ensuing fifteen years I’ve often thought about going back, and am disappointed that I never did.  The Gulf is devastated now.  While the direct responsibility lies in the hands of BP, their subcontractors, the MMS, and the rest of those that pushed for lax regulation of the oil industry, the truth is that we all own it.  Oil is involved in nearly every facet of our lives.  I’m not sure where our country and our world goes from here.  It is a finite resource and will at some point run out.  The fact that BP was drilling in water as deep as they were is indicative of the fact that we’ve already drilled and recovered the easy to access oil fields.  The time to start transitioning away from oil was thirty years ago. That didn’t happen, obviously.

The harder and more difficult the oil is to extract, the more likely events like the Deepwater Horizon spill are to happen. Perhaps as a society we’ve become willing to accept the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico as collateral damage resulting from our way of life.  The ridiculous slogan “drill, baby, drill!” makes me uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable because I want to abhor those people, but I am forced to look at my own actions and realize how big a part of the problem I am.

Last Tuesday morning I drove an hour and a half up to Mt. Hood by myself to go skiing for a few hours and thought about what an excess that was.  And I thought about the thousands of miles I’ve driven and flown over the last ten years to go climbing.  And all the petroleum based products, from my synthetic clothing to my plastic helmet, that I use.

The truth is that I feel like a hypocrite.  I am disgusted by our dependence as a nation on oil, but am myself an addict.  I don’t WANT to stop.  I love climbing and skiing, traveling and getting out and more often than not oil is involved in some way.  But I can still smell the Gulf air and I remember the fishing and the wildlife, the beauty of the bayous, and am deeply saddened when I see pictures of the devastation.  Is it worth it?  Will we be able to escape our oil dependence before it’s too late?  I’m not entirely sure that we can, but I do know that in order to stay sane I’m going to have to do something to change my own relationship to oil.


While visiting Denver over the summer, Sarah and I along with my cousin Shannon, her husband and their three kids, headed downtown to go to a Rockies game. The weather was unusually nasty with dark, menacing clouds and a lot of rain. Throngs of baseball fans headed to the stadium and as we were walking tornado sirens began shrieking. It certainly looked tornadoey (new word), but the crowd just sort of looked around and continued on their way. No one panicked, no one asked questions, the police and security guards just stood around. Eventually the sirens stopped wailing and we went inside and waited an hour before they called the game due to the rain. It turns out the sirens signified a legitimate hazardous weather event but luck would have it that nothing bad happened.

Perhaps it’s not the perfect analogy, but I believe that this is indicative of how most people react to events that threaten to change their everyday understanding of the world around them. It is no different from what is happening now as our global financial system teeters on the brink of collapse. A few economists, most notably NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini, have been predicting this crisis for a few years, but it wasn’t until the September 15th fall of financial services giant Lehman Brothers that the scale of the problem became evident to the majority of Americans. There were a few weeks of discourse and outrage over spending 700 billion dollars to bailout failing banks, the stock market crashed magnificently wiping out many 401k’s, and then the election took over the news cycle. In the past couple of weeks the markets seem to many to have recovered somewhat (if 10% swings and tons of volatility mean recovery, than sure they’ve recovered). The short attention span of our dying culture has relegated the crisis to the back of the Hummer limo as if it were nothing more than Lindsey Lohan’s hairless poonan. Unfortunately, not unlike Lindsey’s private bits, this thing is here to stay.

For me the last couple of months have been filled with reading and thinking about the future. I know many of you are probably tired of listening to me rant about this stuff, and I apologize (especially to Sarah). Friday night drinking at the bar is for relaxing fun time, not doom and gloom prognostications. At any rate, in eight years of President Bush and his troubles with the English language, perhaps the most erudite thing he’s said is, concerning the financial crisis, “This sucker’s going down!” It is rare that I agree with Mr. Bush, but in this case I do wholeheartedly. I won’t go into the economic minutiae because there are a number of excellent blogs dedicated to economics written by much smarter folks than me. For more information check out: Calculated Risk, Naked Capitalism, Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor, and for an easier to understand synopsis of what is going on NPR’s Planet Money is a great resource.

A book that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is James Howard Kuntsler’s The Long Emergency. I originally heard about the book when it was excerpted in “Rolling Stone”. The book details what Kuntsler sees as the inevitable effects of peak oil and the dramatic change that society will see as a result. He also makes some predictions vis-a-vis the financial system that in hindsight seem, frighteningly, to have come true. He concludes that global capitalism as we know will come to an end and while it seems to me that he is right, the mechanism seems not to be peak oil, but a collapse of the global finance system. That isn’t to say that peak oil is a non-issue at this point, only that the drop in demand that we’re seeing now will delay when we begin to feel the effects. If (and that’s a big if) we see a substantial economic recovery in the next few years, peak oil will not be far behind and present a whole host of new problems to contend with.

Regardless, I think that Kuntsler is correct in his assertion that the new economy will, out of necessity, be based on localism. Cheap energy and a functioning credit market are required for globalization to exist and soon we will have neither of those. He has a new book out about what the post oil future will look like, and also maintains a blog that is worth reading.

It’s hard to know what to do. Just keep living life the way we have been while everything falls apart? Start a commune? I think the answer for now is to start simplifying: get out of debt as quickly as possible, grow a garden, get some chickens. Anything to start down the path towards self sufficiency is a good thing.