Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Sing sorrow, sorrow"

A 2008 production of Aeschylus' Agamemnon at L.A.'s Getty Villa. 

[The following was published as "Tragic Opportunity" in GREEN STATE, my column in the Emporia Gazette, on June 18, 2010]

As I write this post, we are at Day 58 of the BP oil spill, the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Eleven people killed, countless birds and sea life dead, coastal lands soaked in toxic oil and the region's economy crippled. Every day, about 2.5 million gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf with no end in sight.

“Tragic” barely describes it. The media has finally been let in, the high-definition cameras are rolling and we are now face to face with tragedy.

But tragedy does not have to be a one-way course. We can learn something this time. Watching the Deep Horizon disaster thrusts us into the emotional hot seat that tragedy always forges. The Greeks produced tragedies in order to purge themselves of pent-up emotional energy and observe the consequences of human flaws and misunderstandings. Drama, now delivered by the hour on TV and DVD, still affects us the same way. Going to the movies is a safety valve of sorts and we pay real money to indulge in the strife of heroes whose crises pile up by the minute. We savor the relief when those crises are resolved.

Real-life tragedy, however, has no safety valve. Our hearts and minds are as vulnerable to the toxic slime spreading through the Gulf as are the water, creatures and their habitat. Suffering is inevitable, but we can put it to use by applying our raised awareness to new policies about energy and those who control it.

Two silver linings, however faint they may appear today, are: (1) a wider acceptance of the fact that the fossil-fuel era is over, and (2) recognition that deregulation run wild is a policy that cannot sustain our way of life or our planet.

Oil is a finite resource and even the Saudis, who export more of it than anyone else, have admitted that they have to start investing in alternative energy. “The oil won't last forever,” said the Saudi minister of petroleum and mineral resources a few weeks ago.

Demand for oil has dropped among industrialized nations due to new policies for energy efficiency, but it is increasing in other areas, especially China, the fastest-growing economy in the world. With demand from China and India soon to outgrow supply, oil-producing nations have the foresight to diversify their energy industries. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister described the kingdom's new focus on clean energy, including a solar program designed to make it “a major megawatt exporter” of solar energy over the next five decades.

In TV commercials airing over the past couple of years we've seen that ExxonMobile and others are tapping into green alternatives, too, mapping out ways to stay in the energy business by producing biofuels, wind and solar. But it's not giving up its potential for a few more years of multi-billion-dollar oil profits without a fight.

As President Barack Obama said in his Oval Office speech this week, the path leading away from our addiction to fossil fuels has been blocked for decades not only by the oil industry, “but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”

It takes political courage to go against the stream of fifty years of deregulation that have allowed one of the most destructive elements of human nature—greed—to run its course. Oil and gas, electric utilities, telecommunications and Wall Street have been given increasingly free reign under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. The result has been economic meltdowns like the savings and loan bailout, Enron, a global recession ignited by Wall Street's freedom to gamble, and an oil spill that hasn't been plugged because oil companies have been allowed to lie about their safety programs.

Regulation is a four-letter-word among those who try to equate it with the destruction of the free market. In truth, regulation does not destroy capitalism but makes it functional and sustainable. As FDIC chief Sheila Bair put it, “There's a difference between free markets and a free-for-all.” Unbridled greed that pursues profit at the expense of society cannot endure. Look what it's done to our economy. Look what it's doing in the Gulf.

I am optimistic that we are now learning from the crises created by the “free-for-all” free market. We elected leaders who are scraping away at the excessive practices that have degraded American capitalism into an obscene force of greed that has devastated our economy and quality of life (except for the 1 percent at the top). And I am hopeful that our suffering over the death of wildlife, habitats and economies in the Gulf will motivate more of us to accept the fact that the Age of Oil is giving way to the Age of Renewable Energy.

We cannot escape the Gulf tragedy, but we can anticipate a brighter future, like the Chorus in Agamemnon:

“Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.”