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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Petroleum Metropolis

Workers from 'Metropolis'
When I think of America's relationship with the rest of the world, I often think of Fritz Lang's classic silent movie Metropolis. In that movie, most of humanity works deep underground under terrible conditions, making sure the machinery of the world keeps running. Meanwhile, a wealthy elite live above ground, enjoying a careless life of leisure, made possible by all the work going on beneath their feet.

And the people living above ground have no idea what's going on below. All this ease is just the way things are, because it's always been this way. Self-absorbed and incurious, they live lives of little consequence -- the ultimate consumers -- completely unaware of the suffering that makes their lives possible.

I think of this especially when I look at the news. We aren't as disconnected as the upper class of Metropolis, but we are disconnected. Things go on that make our lives possible that we have no clue about. Worse, we don't seem to have any interest in the subject. Unlike the clueless aristocrats of Lang's movie, we work too. But our way of life is supported by war and exploitation, by environmental destruction and sweat shops, by poverty and the repression of human rights.

But sometimes, the real world -- the wider world -- intrudes and we see the world as it really is. That is, if we're interested. Too often we aren't. The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico gives us a glimpse at how the other half lives, but you wonder how many will actually look.

McClatchy Newspapers:

Like many of her neighbors, Celina Harpe is angry about the oil pollution at her doorstep. No longer can she eat the silvery fish that dart along the shore near her home. Even the wind that hurries over the water reeks of oil waste.

"I get so mad," she said. "I feel very sad."

Harpe, 70, isn't a casualty of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She lives in a remote corner of Alberta, Canada, where another oil field that's vital to the United States is damaging one of the world's most important ecosystems: Canada's northern forest.

Across the globe, people such as Harpe in oil-producing regions are watching the catastrophe in the Gulf with a mixture of horror, hope and resignation. To some, the black tide is a global event that finally may awaken the world to the real cost of oil.

18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater are destroying the rainforest in Ecuador and oil slicks float on the Niger delta. "Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oil fields all over the world, and very few people seem to care," said Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City University of New York, told McClatchy. "No one is accepting responsibility. Our fingerprint is on those disasters because we are such a major consumer of oil."

And the fact that the world's oil reserves are dwindling only makes extraction more dangerous. The Deepwater Horizon gusher would've been capped almost immediately if it had been on land, but deep in the ocean, it poses real challenges. We're not drilling out there, where it's more expensive to get to, because we think that's fun. We're drilling out there because we're running out of oil. It'll be a while before we're comfortable with drilling off our own shores, but I have my doubts whether we'll feel as strongly about drilling off someone else's. The United States alone accounts for roughly a quarter of the world's oil consumption, yet we seem to believe that the damage caused by oil exploration isn't our problem.

"When [oil companies] go into a country like Ecuador or Peru, where there is no meaningful regulation, they take advantage of that," says Kimerling. "They are more careless, and go in with an attitude that they can do whatever they want... The U.S. government has not shown any interest in the environmental disasters that are being caused by our companies in other countries."

Now that it's happening to us, maybe we'll start to worry about what our oil addiction is doing to other people. Some guy from Ecuador could point to the oil slick threatening the Florida beaches and say, "Welcome to my world." This isn't anything new, it's just new to us. Maybe it will be our wake-up call.

Frankly, I have my doubts.


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vet said...

Outstanding post, Wisco. Thank you.

Wisco said...