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We Have Yet to Come Face to Face with the Biggest Cost of the BP Spill

The BP spill must be a wake-up call -- to re-imagine our economy, our politics and our energy needs, or else to calculate just how much more we are willing to lose.

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A range of powerful groups are already pushing their alternatives to gulf oil. The corn ethanol industry recently seized the chance to wean America from its fossil fuel addiction with a campaign titled "Ethanol: Now is the Time." (Catchphrase: "We feed the world. We can fuel it too.") The National Corn Growers Association's durable solution to deep-sea drilling involves growing food not in order to eat it, but to set it on fire. For this to be economical will require Congress to renew a corn ethanol tax-break that costs taxpayers $6 billion, according to a recent Iowa State University study. If nothing else, the corn industry has chutzpah. Before the oil spill, agricultural runoff from corn and livestock production along the Mississippi was responsible for a dead zone in the gulf the size of New Jersey. No one knows how King Corn's effluent will interact with Big Oil's cocktail, but it's certain that to avoid paying for the mess, one group will blame the other.

A serious consideration of less toxic alternatives will require the sort of public debate that goes beyond questions like “How many people have lost a livelihood from the spill?” to ask what sort of gulf economy is sustainable for the future; to ask not only "What's the cost of the oil spill?" but also "What are the true costs of our energy needs?" It won't be an easy conversation—especially in a country that consumes more of the world's energy per capita than almost any other. But we must put these larger, unseen costs at the center of this discussion, because, just like the oil, the fact that we can't see them doesn't mean they don't exist. These costs are an iceberg: only a fraction visible to our myopic economy, and the rest are hidden, unaccounted for and passed on to "the small people," as BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has referred to the residents of the gulf coast. Across the globe, already 300,000 people—mainly poor, mostly women—die every year as a result of climate change. This is a debt that we in rich countries have dumped on the global South, the responsibility for which we ourselves have dispersed.

It's not an entirely grim picture, fortunately. BP hasn't managed to disperse all its opposition quite yet. A great deal of organizing, much of it outside the US, is demanding a zero-carbon future and reparations for environmental harm done by the rich to the poor. For these efforts to succeed in this country, the BP spill must be a wake-up call—to re-imagine our economy, our politics and our energy needs, or else to calculate just how much more we are willing to lose.