Technology and Impotence

oil_spill_may_17_nasa.jpgNASA satellite image of Gulf oil spill, May 17, 2010.

The BP oil spill goes on. And on. We watch the oil on live web cam pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. And we watch. Political rage is muted, practical responses even more distant. What to do? How do we “take action” on something like this? How can individuals meaningfully respond to this catastrophe? Stop driving? Boycott one brand of gas? Stop buying things made of plastic? Let’s not flatter ourselves. A few folks I know are planning to go to a local ARCO gas station (owned by BP) to protest, which will surely be a big moment for the minimum wage employee in the cash booth, and probably an irritant to the half dozen or more motorists waiting to fill their cars.

The numbing impotence we feel is painfully calibrated to our inability to affect what’s happening. Consumer choices we might make will have zero impact on this disaster, and can’t shape the larger dynamics of a globe-spanning, multinational oil industry either. Just listen to Democracy Now on Friday morning to hear how Chevron has destroyed thousands of square miles of the Nigerian delta in its incessant exploitation of the oil there, or how the Ecuadoran Amazon too is covered in vast lakes of spilled oil.

The deeper questions about technology and science are far from our daily lives. The world we live in is embedded in complex networks of technological dependencies, which none of us have chosen freely. Nor do any of us have any way to participate directly in deciding what technologies we will use, how they will be deployed, what kind of social controls will be exerted over private interests who organize and run them for their own gain, etc. (supposedly the federal government regulates them in the public interest, but that is clearly false as shown YET AGAIN by this disaster). The basic direction of science is considered a product of objective research and development, when it has always been skewed to serve the interests of those who already have economic and political power. Public, democratic direction for science and technology is not only non-existent, we really don’t even discuss it as a possibility!

British Petroleum should be given the death penalty. Oh wait! They don’t have death penalties for corporations. In fact, though they apparently have all the rights of individuals with respect to “free speech” (which they are free to buy at any price they wish), they cannot be held accountable as individuals for overtly criminal behavior. And even if they were, their bottom-line obsessing, litigation-phobic approach to the worst oil spill in history is just an example of normal corporate behavior in 2010. Their efforts to control press access and spin the story to their advantage have been consistent since the original accident, insisting on journalists being embedded on BP boats or planes so they can control what is seen and reported.

Penalizing corporate executives that get “caught” only legitimizes the rest of the criminal class in their everyday destruction of the planet. Maybe BP executives will be held criminally responsible (probably not), but the entity whose logic controls the behavior of anyone who is its executive is virtually immune. Unlike its political competitors in human form, the corporation is also apparently immortal.

The abject obeisance of the Obama government during the first 30 days of the oil geyser is a shame. Government ignorance and inaction, following the routine corruption that granted safety and environmental waivers to BP for this drilling project, should rock its legitimacy as much as Chernobyl did the Soviet government’s in 1986. I hope that blind faith in technology would also suffer a severe blow. Assurances about safe technology, proper safe guards, etc. are made about all our energy sources, from undersea oil drilling to nuclear power to the fictional “clean coal.” (Just last Tuesday I was speaking at a class at UC Santa Cruz where a couple of earnest students tried to argue that nuclear power was the solution to global warming!) This oil geyser resembles nothing so much as an uncontrollable nuclear meltdown. But rather than radiating thousands of square miles of countryside as happened in the Ukraine in 1986, this is filling the Gulf of Mexico with billions of gallons of crude oil. The sea is already dying, which is beginning to cascade into seaside communities and economies. The death of the Gulf will have unknown further effects on weather, ocean ecology, bird migration, and much more, and that’s before the massive underwater oil plume reaches the gulf stream in the Atlantic and does even more damage. It’s an insane, unwanted experiment in a foreseeable and preventable ecological catastrophe of unprecedented scope and severity.

Turns out that BP is closer to us, in a bigger way, than a lot of folks realize. Only a couple of years ago BP and the University of California at Berkeley signed a $500 million deal that will build a new biofuels research institute at the school, to be managed by BP and it is to BP that all patent discoveries will go. Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu was the UC official who made the deal. Now his deputy energy secretary is the former chief scientist for BP! Maybe folks who want to protest this disaster should explore an alliance with the dynamic student movement that has already been in motion since last fall. Protest and obstruction do have their place.

nitc_swoosh_map.jpgNature in the City’s new proposal for a 10-mile "wild" corridor.

But other things are afoot in San Francisco too of a more affirmative nature. A couple of weeks ago the Public Utilities Committee of the Board of Supervisors held a well-attended public hearing regarding new ways of working with local water supplies from ground water and storm water to rain catchment and graywater. On Wednesday night Nature in the City presented their new campaign for a Bioregional Park (PDF) in the heart of San Francisco, a long-term feature of which is a 10-mile corridor that sweeps from the Presidio in the north down the spine of the City’s major peaks and then angling east across McLaren Park to Bayview Hill and Candlestick Point.  A natural corridor that knits together as many existing open spaces and parks as possible, planted with native plants to restore basic habitat for local critters, bugs and plants, would also help them to migrate through the urban environment. Bikeways, hiking paths, even daylighted creeks could be part of this.

And the SF Bike Coalition just announced their new campaign Connecting the City—San Francisco’s Crosstown Bikeways for All (which is not as ambitious—after all these years—as a modest little flyer I put out in 1987 calling for a City of Panhandles). So far it’s a campaign to raise money, but it demonstrates a willingness to finally push for a more serious challenge to the dominance of private cars over our public streets. It’s a campaign that dovetails nicely with the notion of a wild corridor, new ways to think about watersheds and underground creeks, and more. It’s welcome development for the bigger agenda of altering how we live.

Ultimately these small choices are the only way we CAN start to lay a new foundation, technologically and socially, for a real transformation of life that will preclude disasters of the magnitude in the Gulf. A materially comfortable life for all should be the goal of a creative and energetic campaign of social and technological re-invention so that we radically reduce our use of energy, water, and other materials.

Combining the various incipient insurgencies for other uses of public streets, maybe we can start by getting some accurate numbers. What percentage of the land area of San Francisco is covered in public streets? What percentage of that street area is dedicated to cars as opposed to bicycles, pedestrians, or even transit lines (obviously buses use the same streets as cars, but not nearly as many streets as cars; nor do they generally park curbside)? What percentage is open space, parklands, sidewalk gardens, etc.? What are the largest contiguous zones of open lands not built on in some fashion?

I propose that once we get the numbers, which we can only guess at now, it will be possible to raise the demand for a specific percentage of city streets being permanently turned over to new uses, including daylighting subterranean waterways, building city-spanning parkways for crosstown bicycling, walking, and for the critters, scurrying and slithering. What do you think? Five percent of the streets converted to new auto-free uses? 10 percent? 25 percent? How far can we go?

Our era is characterized by a profound impotence in the face of national and global breakdowns. We don’t have a political vision, let alone a movement of movements, ready for prime time. We have to build the capacity to reinvent life one block, one neighborhood, one city at a time. The good news is that thousands of your friends and neighbors are already involved in just these efforts. Paul Hawken in his book “Blessed Unrest” identifies 30 million grassroots environmental organizations around the world! He calls them the immune system for Earth. Let’s hope the immune system will behave like our own bodily immune systems, and start killing the threats to our global health, the corporations that left unchecked will certainly kill us and everything else on the planet.

  • fred rinne

    Excellent! And while you’re at it, be sure to call in the WHite House Comment Line, ant (202) 456 – 1414. You’ll get a volunteer (be nice) and leave a brief comment about the issue concerning you. It can’t hurt.

  • I think a very sensible reaction to this catastrophe is to stop driving, stop flying, stop buying a bunch of stuff we don’t really need as well as shutting down your local ARCO station, not to mention starting community gardens, bike repair co-ops and all of the rest. As oil consumers we are also culpable for this crime against nature that is unfolding on our southern shore and building up in our atmosphere.

    This kind of thing happens all the time in the developing world- you just don’t have CNN there reporting on it. Interesting article at

  • I agree that grassroots is the most potent force we have, communities willing to reinvent themselves one block at a time. I can’t say I feel rage about the Gulf of Mexico. It’s more that I feel physically ill.

    The easy oil on our planet is gone. Most of the rest–whether it be in the form of tar sands or a mile under the ocean–has enormous environmental repercussions. In addition, the US has run through its oil stores and now must import 2/3 of the oil we use every day.

    The solution is not to invade other countries and take their oil or bribe their leaders to sell it to us rather than India or China. The solution is to do sooner that which we must do fairly soon, by necessity, anyway: transition our country off oil. Which means each of us as individuals has to transition off oil.

    So yes to bike lanes and plazas and open space. Yes to prioritizing public space (including streets) to public transit and people rather than cars. And I’d be delighted with a wildlife corridor wending its way through San Francisco. But more than anything, we all need to use less oil pronto. Set a goal–say, 20% less each year for the next three years. Accomplish this through behavior (walk/bike/take transit) and/or through technology (dump the SUV for a Nissan Leaf; upgrade the Prius with plug-in capability.) We also have to fly less, use less plastics (made from oil) and buy less food and other products that have been shipped long distances by air or truck. I personally find it easy to give up bottled water and blueberries from Chile and less easy to give up trips to Paris. Still, we’ve got get ourselves down that oil usage curve.

    I very much like this line from the article above:

    “A materially comfortable life for all should be the goal of a creative and energetic campaign of social and technological re-invention so that we radically reduce our use of energy, water, and other materials.”

    We just have to acknowledge that a “materially comfortable life” doesn’t necessarily look like American life as we know it today.

    Of course, the absolute simplest way to wean America off oil is a hefty gas tax. (Federal gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, unchanged since 1993.) It would stimulate behavioral and technology changes faster than anything. It seems, however, that as a nation we would rather fight two wars and turn vast regions of our country into dead zones rather than give up cheap gasoline to run our leaf blowers, RVs and jet skis.

  • What exactly is the evidence of the Obama administrations “obeisance” during the first month of the spill? He said from the beginning that this was BP’s fault and that taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for it. He also told us the truth: that oil companies have more tools at their disposal to deal with these situations than governments do.

    Would you rather he had muscled his way in, thrown out all the drilling experts, and put the Navy to work on the problem? What makes you think the Federal government is equipped to deal with a problem happening ONE MILE below the surface of the ocean?

    It seems to me President Obama has done exactly the right thing at every step. He’s acknowledged that this disaster is the consequence of corruption in his prececessor’s administration. He has taken his share of blame for his administration’s failure to root out this corruption in its first year in office. He’s accepted a certain amount of moral responsibility so as not to be seen as descending into blame-shifting, and he’s carefully balanced this necessary step with a commitment to keeping the heat on BP and its contractors to solve the problem. Most encouraging, he’s slammed the brakes on other drilling projects until the oil companies can show why this won’t happen again, and that they’ll know how to deal with it if it does.

    To me, the most salutary message about this spill is that nobody really knows what to do. Nobody was ready. We have a rare president with the courage to tell us the truth about that. Why is that a problem?

  • “Why is that a problem–”

    I don’t think it really is. What Carlsson is actually giving us, I guess, is the oil rent-taker class’s enthusiastic denial of responsibility for the industry that gets them their government money. Government makes most of the money that is made on oil.

    It is only the oil and gas interests — acknowledged or not — that pretend nuclear power is unworthy of discussion.

    If he responds, “Government makes money on oil?! What nonsense! Government *subsidizes* oil!”, that will pretty well prove it. Subsidies do exist, but they are much smaller than the special revenues.

  • Tasha

    Thank you for a new perspective. New perspectives and possible visions of any positive action we can do to keep from feeling so helpless and hopeless is much appreciated.

  • Tyler

    So true. Matter of Trust is another solution and even a Bay area non-profit. They have been collecting hair donation from around the world to support the clean up effort. Hair is incredibly effective at soaking up oil. Currently there are over 400,000 pounds of hair being stuffed in nylon stocking booms. Its now up to us to put the pressure on BP, Unified Command and the Government to use them. Please pass the word around. Plus if anyone wants to volunteer, whether in SF or down in the Gulf you can contact me at

    ps love the idea about the wild corridor. Gotta put educational posters to identify all the plants along the trail. I always thought it would be cool to put signs underneath edible trees in the city so that people could feel good about eating the fruit while educating them too. Plus feed the hungry and help keep the sidewalks clean from rotting flesh.


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