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Blue Bayou

It's morbidly painful to see ecological disaster strike at southern Louisiana-again. At risk now are the wetlands-the bayous.

The bayou is French for slow-moving waterway. In Louisiana it is an offshoot of the Mississippi River that forms a delta at the river's mouth. 

It took a thousand years of annual spring flooding for the silt and sediments to develop this region. But it's taken only the past 60 years to endanger it and the oil and gas industry is at the center of this destruction. 

But the threat to the bayous didn't happen last month with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. 

Oil rigs began to appear in the brackish coastal areas of the Gulf in the early 1930s when the Texas Company (Texaco) developed the first mobile steel barges for drilling. After World War II, other companies began to build fixed off-shore platforms near southern Louisiana. Today the Gulf hosts about 4,000 platforms. 

Since 1950, an 8,000-mile system of canals has been constructed in the bayous- with channels 15 to 25-feet wide and six to seven-feet deep-to accommodate the transport of oil-related equipment.

Over the past few years many people in Louisiana have been concerned about the disappearing bayous, whose loss each day is equivalent to the size of a football field. Among them are musicians like the jazz singer/songwriter known as Dr. John who wrote "Black Gold" (included in his Grammy Award-winning 2007 album, The City That Care Forgot). The song points out how canals had made the area more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms without recognizing that the wetlands provide protection to the mainland, one reason why Hurricane Katrina was so destructive.

"Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands," said Dr. John, "but corruption in the state made the money go elsewhere." He spoke recently at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in New Orleans.

Today, the world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day.  The United States is the top guzzler at almost 23 percent. The European Union comes in second at 14 percent, China at 9 percent and India at 3 percent.

Nearly half of each barrel of oil is made into gasoline while the rest is used in agriculture, cosmetics, soaps and cleaning supplies, textiles, plastics, recreational equipment, auto parts, kitchen appliances-practically everything, according to the Ranken Energy Corporation.  

Unfortunately, our desire for oil makes us willing to do whatever it takes to get it. This self-destructive drive and over-reliance on oil is bad for four reasons.

First, oil is a non-renewable resource and its supply is limited. We have already extracted about half of the cheap and easy-to-obtain oil in the world. What's left is more difficult to get-some of it available through the deepwater off-shore rigs!

Second, carbon-based fuels are choking our planet's atmosphere and causing climate change. Before the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, earth had 270 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.  Today, it is at 390 ppm. Climate change is linked to the increasing intensity of storms and directly responsible for rising seas due to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. 

Third, accidents like the oil spill demonstrate how dangerous oil drilling can be to the environment and to the livelihoods of people living in coastal areas. 

Fourth, our reliance on imported oil has led to an aggressive U.S. foreign and military policy against the world's oil-producing regions upon whom we depend for our imported oil.

We first exposed our desperation for oil on January 23, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter initiated the Carter Doctrine, which declared that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend our national interests in the Persian Gulf. 

In 2001 the overt fight for oil began with the invasion of Afghanistan where several oil companies wanted to build a Trans-Afghanistan Gas Pipeline in the late 1990s from Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Pakistan or India. In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq, which just happens to be the world's second largest proven oil reserve. 

We are still at war in both these countries with no end in sight and so far have lost 4,402 Americans in Iraq, 1,060 in Afghanistan, a combined wounded of 37,641 and nearly $1 trillion. About one million Iraqis have also lost their lives and no one is counting dead Afghanis. 

Oil has been a problem for the United States over the past 40 years, said David Cohen, author of Decline of Empire who notes that the nation peaked in its domestic oil production in 1970.  That led us to import more oil, which then left us less self-sufficient and extremely vulnerable to several other countries, including those who hate us.

"And now we're paying the tragic consequences," said Cohen.  "Our civilization has been and continues to be built on fossil energy.  As a consequence of that mindless development, humans have trashed their environment."

America has a 36,000-mile cross-country pipeline network that fuels 250 million vehicles.  So while the media focus blame on BP and government regulators-and rightfully so-we must also recognize that our demand for oil makes all of us responsible for the oil spill, too. 

If there is a lesson in this horrible tragedy, it is that we must change our way of life to one that is less centered around fossil fuels.

As a start, we can walk and bike more; use public transportation; support train travel and transport; eat local food or grow our own; turn down the heat; cut the air conditioning; resist using plastic products; retire gas-powered lawn equipment and other vehicles. 

It is imperative that we reduce our demand for oil or we will sacrifice not only our precious bayous, wildlife, coastal cities and businesses but eventually our planet. 

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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