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By Bill McKibben

[I am posting this diary because Bill McKibben is right now giving a speech and unable to post it himself - MB.]

The question to ask about the spill in the Gulf is: are we dealing with a one-off accident, a mistake, a bug? Or is it environmental destruction really the essential business model of the fossil fuel industry?

If the answer is bug, then we need to concentrate on one kind of solution: better regulations to make sure oil wells don’t leak, and that if they do companies pay for the damage. And we surely need to do that—it’s a no-brainer (which unfortunately doesn’t preclude the fact that the Congress may not do it. We need a new word for something any other human institution would automatically do, but the Senate will punt). It’s basically straightforward, the kind of thing technologically sophisticated societies are good at.

But what if the BP spill is just one tiny part of the daily ongoing destruction that comes from the fossil fuel business? That’s my contention.

For one thing, consider what the business has become: because we’ve found the easy oil, by definition every well is harder to drill and riskier to run than the last one. BP is a mile down in a gulf; they’ll have to go deeper still to exploit the last big find, the "pre-salt" formations off Brazil. There’s limits to how safe any of this is.

But of course the much bigger problem is what happens if you get that oil safely ashore and burn it. The Onion, as usual, captured the true dimensions of this problem better than the rest of the media. Here’s the way to think about it: if oil doesn’t wreck the Gulf, then the global warming it causes wrecks Russia, and Pakistan. If coal doesn’t kill miners, then the heat and acid it produces wrecks the ocean—check out the scariest piece of news from a scary summer, the Nature study demonstrating that warmer ocean temperatures have cut the abundance of plankton in half. Not Good News.

Here’s another way of putting it. If BP doesn’t use the Gulf of Mexico as an open sewer, it will use the atmosphere as an open sewer. That is its business model—ditto Exxon, and Duke Energy, and Massey Coal. Because they get to use the atmosphere for free, they’re privatizing the profits and socializing the costs (sort of, come to think of it, like the bailed-out banks). A new analysis at the always estimable TomDispatch convincingly shows that if they paid the costs associated with their products, they would go from the most profitable corporations on earth to operating deeply in the red.

And it follows from this that if we’re going to actually do anything about these problems we’ll have to actually confront the power of fossil fuel and break it. Yes, they’ll fight new regulations on oil drilling, but eventually they’ll give in because it’s not That Much Money. A new business plan? That’s different. Exxon made $40 billion last year using the current model: that’s more money than any company’s made in the history of money. So my guess is they’ll fight.

In fact, it’s not even a guess. That’s why the Senate demurred on even the tamest climate legislation in the spring—the utilities couldn’t deal with even a teensy cost on carbon, never mind a real one.

The only way we’ll get it is to build a movement. That’s a lot of work, but the work is underway, and it needs your help. Last October, at 350.org, we coordinated 5200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called ‘the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.’ It was good, but not good enough—siz weeks later, at Copenhagen, we got 117 nations to sign on to a 350 ppm target for co2. But they were the wrong 117, the poor ones.

So we’re back at work, aiming for bigger and stronger. Next chance: 10-10-10, a Global Work Party organized with many different groups. In thousands of places around the world people will be putting up solar panels or laying out bike paths. And they’ll be using it as an occasion to say, pointedly, to their political leaders: We’re getting to work—what about you?  Register an action here.

That’s not all we’re going to need to do, of course—before next summer rolls around, some of us are going to have to be in jail, and lots of us are going to have to be in the streets. We’re planning as fast as we can.

But for now, what’s key is to be clear about the essential problem. The BP spill was a great tragedy, and we must make amends to the people who suffered. But fossil fuel every single day of every single week is a great tragedy. Even when you can’t capture it on a robocam.

Gulf Recovery Blogathon Calendar (All times Pacific)

Wednesday August 11

1pm  noweasels

2pm  boatsie

3pm  Daniel Kessler (Greenpeace)

4pm  mogmaar

5pm  Patriot Daily

6pm  Project Gulf Impact

Thursday August 12

1pm  pico

2pm  Fishgrease

3pm  citisven

4pm  Bill Mckibben

5pm  oke

6pm  Project Gulf Impact

7pm  JekyllnHyde

Friday August 13

1pm  La Feminista

2pm  Pam La Pier

3pm  rb137

4pm  Meteor Blades

5pm  Laurence Lewis

6pm  Project Gulf Impact

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Aug 12, 2010 at 04:10 PM PDT.

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