The Gulf Spill as a Breach of Our Environmental Security

Since September 1987, when my wife and I bought a house on the west end of Long Beach, New York, we've been part-time residents of this very special place on the south shore of Long Island. Long Beach is a small city with a bus service, great pizza, marvelous ice cream, libraries, a boardwalk, and a wonderful beach. It's about an hour from the city and at the end of a branch of the Long Island Railroad. Our small house is really a bungalow that sits on a 60 by 40-foot piece of land a half block from the bay and a block and a half from the ocean. As always, summer started this past weekend with that combination of patriotism and sadness that I invariably find characteristic of Memorial Day. Long Beach hosts a classic small town Memorial Day parade that never fails to move me. Everyone lines the town's main avenues to wave American flags and applaud the veterans, school marching bands, and even the local elected officials.

This Memorial Day, as I look out on Long Island's ocean, I find my sense of peace and well being disturbed by images, thoughts and fears of the environmental disaster that continues to endanger the Gulf of Mexico. Memorial Day is all about honoring those that protect us and defend our way of life. It is a moment to give thanks to those that gave their lives to provide us with the security we all enjoy here in America. But how secure are we if one irresponsible corporation can cause the incredible devastation that BP has brought to the Gulf? Did these brave people we honor on Memorial Day give their lives to protect the right of BP to destroy our waters? I don't think so. Something is very wrong with this picture.

NY Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote that this a crucial moment for President Obama to provide leadership on the movement to alternative energy and off of fossil fuels. And so it is, but we need to do much more than simply shift the energy base of our economy. We need to develop the capacity to both manage and police our use of technology. Even renewable energy involves dangerous and toxic production processes. Solar cells do not grow from the soil and wind turbines are not made out of wood. Let's not forget the technical complexity and dangers of nuclear technology. The technological base of the modern economy is complicated and dangerous, and even as we move off of fossil fuels, we need to do a better job of managing and regulating that technology.

The key lesson for sustainability management in the Gulf is that we may have the technology to dig deep wells, but we sure don't have the technology or the management capacity to deal with catastrophic accidents on those drilling rigs. Every day that oil pours into the Gulf is proof of that fact. Our inability to stop this slow motion disaster means we should not have been drilling there in the first place. Part of the licensing process for resource production and extraction processes in fragile environments must be a proven emergency response plan.

I do not expect or even want BP to control their hunger for profits and voluntarily self-police their drilling operations. That is the job of government. Where is our government? We need government inspectors to visit each oil rig, inspect and certify them for operation. We need them to revisit and re-inspect these facilities monthly and without warning. Inspectors should have access to highly skilled contractors with the expertise needed to ensure high quality, technically competent inspections. These contractors must be free of conflicts of interest -- that is, they cannot do business with energy companies.

The organizational and technological challenges of managing a sustainable economy are real, but can be overcome. The deeper problem is the continued currency of the antiquated anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party and the American right wing. If we are to grow our economy without destroying our ecology, our regulatory processes must become more sophisticated and agile than they are today. We cannot regulate a 21st century economy with organizational practices invented in the 1930s. We need to understand that regulation is a police function. It is not inherently anti-business. But when businesses cut corners and risk our safety and ecosystems for a quick buck, then those businesses must be compelled to change their behavior. We don't need less government; we need a more competent one. We don't need less regulation; we need more effective regulation. In addition to inspiring us, we need President Obama to build governmental organizations capable of protecting our environment while promoting economic growth.

Looking back on Memorial Day 2010, let's remember that the military personnel we honor were government employees. Their job was to ensure our security. Not all of the threats to our security can be countered by the military. We need other government workers as well: fire fighters, police officers, emergency medical workers, and environmental regulators. It's time to recognize and respond to the very real breach of environmental security in the Gulf. This may be the largest environmental disaster in our history, but it won't be the last.