After spending a week in Venice, Louisiana getting an up close view of the BP gulf coast oil spill disaster, talking with locals whose livelihoods are over, and seeing dead wildlife, I am trying my best to look at the positive side. Keep in mind that I just got off the phone with one of my boat captains in Louisiana and he told me he saw six dead dolphins and ten dead turtles in the past few days. So the idea of looking on "the bright side" is nearly impossible, and most days I fail, but I think it is human nature to try to find something positive in the face of a catastrophe. The only positive thing that can possibly come from this -- the largest environmental disaster in American history -- is if it causes us to change the way we are living on this Earth.
When Dale Earnhardt Sr. died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, it devastated NASCAR. He was their biggest star and a hero to most of their audience. The one positive thing that came from his death is that racing took a good hard look at safety and they made some really big changes. After his death, all drivers were required to wear full face helmets (Earnhardt wore an open face helmet) as well as a HANS device, a head and neck restraint system. SAFER barriers, or soft walls, were installed in the speedways so that when we crashed, the racetrack wall would help absorb some of the impact. It cost millions of dollars, but it has also likely saved many lives. I have since had wrecks at nearly 200 mph (one impact was so intense it put a crack through my motor) and I have walked away with nothing but bruises and a sore back. I don't know for sure that I would have walked away from those crashes if many years earlier, Earnhardt hadn't passed away and changed the safety rules of racing. His death marked a permanent change to the way motor sports safety was conducted, NASCAR drew a line in the sand and never looked back. That fateful moment made racing safer for all drivers that have strapped themselves into a race car since, including myself.
Perhaps one day we will look back at this oil spill and think "If the Gulf Coast oil spill hadn't happened, we wouldn't have kick started our clean energy economy back in 2010. We wouldn't have made such great strides with solar pv and thermal technology, geothermal energy, wind and tidal turbines, green buildings, hydrogen fuel cell and electric cars, alternative fuels like cellulosic ethanol and algae based biodiesel, and we might not have passed the American Power Act." Perhaps we would look back and incredulously say "Imagine if the gulf coast oil spill hadn't happened, we might actually still be running our country on dirty fossil fuels and spending billions of dollars buying oil from foreign countries! Wouldn't that be awful?!"
Charles Darwin once said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives. Nor is it the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."
And so our time has come -- this is the 11th hour. We either change the way we are living on the planet or relegate ourselves to eventually having our planet covered with oily water, polluted air, dead coral reefs, and cattle pastures where there were once rain forests. I hope that this disaster will wake us up and make those in charge realize that now is the time for us to turn over a new leaf. To check ourselves into rehab to get off our addiction to fossil fuels and start a new sober life with clean, renewable energy.
I am a race car driver; my career is currently based around an internal combustion engine, and yet even I can see the importance of energy independence and the move towards the use of clean, renewable energy. We are at a crossroads and I hope we take the right turn -- or maybe it's a left? Let's take a step -- or even better, a leap -- in the right direction. Let's pass the American Power Act and start putting a real effort into capturing clean energy from the wind, the sun, and the ocean. Let's put Americans to work building our new green energy economy. We've been talking about it for years, the technology is already here -- all we have to do now is to make it happen.
What in the world are we waiting for? Millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico?
My greatest hope in the wake of this ongoing tragedy is that this is our clean energy wake up call. My biggest fear? That we won't answer.