BP and Americans: Where the Blame Really Lies

By talking pretty much exclusively BP's inability to clean up this latest oil spill, we are missing the bigger picture. Focusing on BP's recent sins means we can deftly avoid our own, so we blithely bitch about BP without a thought to what role each of us plays in this Gulf disaster.

If we don't change our own ways, these spills will continue to occur.

In 1989, I was as indignant as anybody when the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. I wrote "Boycott Exxon" on the back of my SUV, and railed against oil companies. It felt good being on my high horse. Then I had an epiphany: the reason that tanker had been out on those waters in the first place was to provide gasoline for my GMC Jimmy. I was part of the problem.

Within months, I purchased my first electric car. The US electric grid gets less than 2% of its power from oil, due to policy changes after the oil crises in the 1970. My first EV was an old Datsun converted in someone's garage, which went 25 miles on a charge. In the last 20 years, my subsequent electric vehicles have been powered by solar panels on my roof or green energy from my electric provider.

When this most recent oil spill happened, I was tempted to distance myself immediately since I haven't owned a gas car in 13 years. Then I took a look at myself again and realized that even though I don't buy gasoline, I still am a big consumer of oil: I fly in planes, drive on asphalt (a petroleum derivative), use plastics. I might use a bit less than the American average of 22.6 barrels of oil a year, but I undoubtedly consume more than my European counterpart who uses 10 barrels a year.

Now, I must ask how I can further change my lifestyle to become even less dependent on oil. Number one: cutting dairy out of my diet, since factory farming is very energy intensive. Two: Fly less, travel less. Aaargh. None of this will be easy for me, and I already hear myself rationalizing as I write this. But until I reduce my oil consumption even more, I don't believe I can bitch freely about the spill in the Gulf.

There is a story about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if he stung the frog, the scorpion would drown as well. So the frog agrees to be carried on the scorpion's back across the river. Mid-river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming the two of them. As they are sinking, the scorpion explains, "I'm a scorpion; stinging is my nature."

Ocean drilling is the nature of oil companies. It is what they do, even if it dooms us all. We can be angry about how they are ineffectively dealing with their mess, but in the end, BP is drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas for one reason only: we need the oil they provide.

We are our own type of scorpion: we believe our consumer lifestyle is in our nature, and we want to continue doing it no matter the cost.

Until we take responsibility for our part in the disaster and change our ways, oil companies will continue to drill in areas progressively harder to access. And thus, oil spills which are harder to fix will continue to happen.