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Want to Prevent Oil Spill Disasters? Stop Driving

A submerged oil well is spewing a river of oil toward Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Birds and fish will die, wetlands and beaches will be ruined -- all because we drive cars.
 
 
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An ecological disaster of enormous magnitude is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

The BP Horizon rig blew up, listed through Earth Day, sank, and now a submerged oil well is spewing a river of oil toward Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Birds and fish will die, wetlands and beaches will be ruined. People will be outraged and people will cry. Offshore drilling -- "drill, baby drill" -- is front and center once again. But this time environmental destruction dominates the storyline.

In response to this situation political progressives need to amp it up a notch. The emphasis by many progressives on "green cars" has been a distraction. Progressives need to get over it. Green cars need oil. Too much oil. Instead, now is the time for progressives to reflect upon the relationship between oil and driving, and to question the way in which driving perpetuates the ecological destruction now underway in the Gulf.

To be sure, oil is fascinating. It is one of the most utilitarian natural resources known to humans. Oil stores a tremendous amount of energy, is easy to transport long distances by pipeline, rail, ship and truck, and can sit for a very long time without spoiling or degrading. It can be refined and distilled easily and has many uses. Its petroleum byproducts are used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, and are part of the energy system for agriculture and the transport of food. Before there was Silicon Valley and the Internet there was Houston and New Orleans and innovations in oil. Oil is in the laptops and servers that belong to all the progressives who balk at oil and oil companies. Oil undergirds the organization of everyday life in America. And we'll need to keep drilling for it.

But we do not need to keep drilling everywhere we can. We do not need to keep searching further offshore, or push into remote, wild areas, or burn nasty tar sands. We need to conserve. We need to reduce. Most importantly, we need to stop driving.

The most profound way in which America needs oil is though the system of automobility -- the combined impact on the built environment of the motor vehicle (cars, trucks), the automobile industry, the highway and street networks, and corollary services like gas stations, and the coordination of everyday life around the car and its spaces. America consumes 25 percent of the world's oil, and roughly 70 percent of that enables automobility. Much of this is for driving cars relatively short distances on a routine, daily basis. This adds up to over 21,000 miles driven a year per car. Ninety-two percent of American households own one car, and 62 percent own two cars.

No source of energy can replicate this level of hyper-automobility. The equivalent of hundreds of huge coal or nuclear powerplants would be needed to mimic this level of automobility if replaced with electric or hydrogen cars. Where are we going to build all of those powerplants? How much CO2 would come from building all of those powerplants and is it worth it simply to keep on routine driving? Retrofitting entire cities with new plug-in outlets will require new power grids and new powerplants -- to keep the level of automobility as we know it going. How can this be justified while we can't even "afford" as a nation to provide basic upkeep to bridges and highways, much less sustain a working public transit system? Meanwhile, wind turbines and solar panels are made from polymers that come from oil. The new "smart grid" and alternative energy future will be made from oil. Growing crops that are burned to drive cars also requires oil.

We need oil to make the "shift" to other energy paths. Yet the vast majority of oil that Americans consume is squandered for short drive-thru trips. We are seeking to expand drilling offshore and in remote areas to keep this system of automobility afloat. At the same time we as a nation expect to make a great leap to new energy systems but that will require lots of oil to build them. We cannot do both.

To any rational thinking person this should be an alarming state of affairs. But to people who identify themselves as political progressives and yet continue to own and drive cars on a routine basis, this should be an embarrassment. Any progressive-leftist-liberal-"green"-environmentalist cannot, with a clear conscience, drive his or her children to school and expect those children to find a planet they'll thrive on. He or she cannot smugly shrug that the transit system does not go where he or she wants to go, or that the distances are too far to ride a bicycle. Any able-bodied progressive who regularly exclaims "But I need to drive!" is in need of some deep reflection on his or her values and especially the idea of a green car.

The "green car" movement has been around since the rise in environmental awareness and recognition of resource scarcity. It reflects how American progressives have held a great discomfort in trying to balance the convenient automobile lifestyle enabled by oil against the messy work of extracting and refining oil. The Prius will not cut it. Engaging in some sort of medieval offset-indulgence scheme won't either. You are driving an oil-consuming machine made from polymers derived from oil and designed to carry you under 30 miles a day in an urban configuration.

Some progressives do this, admittedly, because they are lazy. Others feel "special" and thus entitled to live in scattered sprawl, drive across town to work in less than 20 minutes and then to a dentist on another side of town in another 20 minutes. Many progressive Americans, particularly in coastal "blue" states, expect to be able to drive to the beach and NOT see any signs of oil extraction. That is not progressive. That is imperialism. Those cars are fueled and built with oil from Nigeria, Iraq, Louisiana and Alaska -- places laid to waste by unfettered oil extraction.

Nowhere is this cognitive dissonance more pronounced than in the Bay Area -- capital of progressive environmentalism. In places like San Francisco, Berkeley and Marin County, oil drilling, especially offshore, is anathema. Despite its hyper-utilitarian aspects (and the fact that it still fuels the Prius), inevitable oil spills would endanger marine ecosystems and threaten the seafood and tourist industries. Offshore drilling would also obstruct sunsets and spoil vistas. So drilling in California, as well as on the Atlantic Seaboard, is wisely forbidden.

If the BP Horizon spill was off the California coast it would surely be the end of days. Property values might drop. There would be eco-riots. Hundreds of thousands of do-gooder volunteers would no doubt assemble on the beaches waiting for dead birds to wash up. Some sort of feel-good community spirit might coalesce for a moment, as with the Cosco Busan spill in November 2007. And many would arrive by Prius or biodiesel cars.

Many of you "progressive" motorists are probably seething in defensive, self-righteous posture if you managed to read this far. You drive a Prius, so you're doing your part. Or you don't drive much. Or your groceries are too heavy -- you need a car. In the Bay Area and many parts of California, a common refrain is that there are too many hills, so "I have to drive." Populists will shout that the working poor need their cars to get to work on time and that child care and household chores all but require a car.

But comrades, seriously, consider how you could make modest changes toward a lifestyle centered on walking, bicycling and transit. Imagine if we used less oil, and used it more wisely. Even in the lowest density suburbs in America, 40 percent of car trips are under five miles, within a comfortable spatial range of bicycling. Grocery shopping does not require a car. One can simply walk, bike or take transit, and either come up with creative ways to carry the load, or have a jitney service take care of the delivery. Consider the physical activity and health benefits for your children from walking and bicycling. And consider how un-progressive it is to use oil to make short trips, or to waste billions of barrels to make disposable plastic bags or other throwaway commodities, when we need to save it.

Imagine if we used less, and used it more wisely. We could set most oil aside for the switch to other energy sources, which will require a huge infrastructure program -- high speed rail, transmission systems, urban infill projects, new bicycle networks, light rail systems, new electric or hybrid buses, and new ways of organizing work and shopping spaces.

Those progressives who are still unwilling to give up driving should at least give up complaining and obstructing change. You need to accept that in American cities we need to make it more difficult to drive everywhere, for everything, all of the time. It needs to be far less convenient for the affluent to drive down from their exclusive enclaves to have a meal and see an opera. We need change like ending "free parking" in cities. We charge the poor to ride transit, but progressives expect free parking. The sense of entitlement to speed across the city needs to be restricted. Most importantly, progressive motorists need to slow down so those of us willing to make the change can do so safely.

I see you progressives every day -- the Prius in the bike lane, the speeding, honking Subaru and the hybrid SUVs careening at pedestrians and cyclists, with fashionable Obama stickers or save this/save that bumper stickers on the cars. Honking, hoarding, fighting for a parking space at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. It is madness.

Progressives need to lead by example, and stop driving so we can keep drilling in a thoughtful and reasonable way. So we can drill in a cautious way that minimizes expansion but enables the shifts needed. Otherwise progressive outcries about the spill in the Gulf are a joke. There is a car-free movement in America. Join us.