For those who are not (yet) heartless cynics or emotionless Ayn Rand acolytes, the now-famous photographs of sludge-soaked pelicans on the Gulf Coast are painful to behold. It’s those hollow pupils peeking out of the brown death, screaming in silence. They are an avian version of the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg that F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about—and they implicate us all.
As President Barack Obama correctly stated: “Easily accessible oil has already been sucked up out of the ground”—and drilling companies must now use ever-riskier techniques to find the oil we demand. While British Petroleum and federal regulators are certainly at fault for their reckless behavior, every American who uses oil—which is to say every American—is incriminated in this ecological holocaust.
If we accept that culpability—a big “if” in this accountability-shirking society—we can start considering how to reduce our oil addiction so as to prevent such holocausts in the future. And when pondering that challenge, we must avoid focusing exclusively on legislation. As Colin Beavan argues in his tome “No Impact Man,” green statutes are important, but not enough. Those oil-poisoned birds, choking to death on our energy gluttony, implore us to also take individual action.
This does not necessarily mean radical lifestyle changes—good news for those who remain locked into various forms of oil use. Millions, for instance, must drive or fly to workplaces where no alternative transportation exists. And most of us don’t have the cash to trade in our cars for Priuses, and don’t have the option of telecommuting.
However, almost everyone regardless of income or employment can take steps that are so absurdly simple and cost-effective that there’s simply no excuse not to.
Here are two: We can stop using disposable plastic bags and stop buying plastic-bottled water. Though no big sacrifice, doing this is a huge way to reduce oil use. The Sierra Club estimates that Americans “use 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, which are made from an estimated 12 million barrels of oil.” Likewise, the Pacific Institute reports that the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic water bottles—incredibly wasteful considering that clean tap water is ubiquitously available in America.
Here’s another: In a country that puts one-fifth of its fossil fuel use into agriculture, we can make a difference by slightly reducing our consumption of animal flesh, the culinary gas-guzzler.
Today, the average American eats 200 pounds of meat annually, “an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago,” according to The New York Times. Setting aside morality questions about executing 10 billion living beings a year simply to satiate an epicurean fancy, the sheer energy costs of this dietary choice are monstrous.
Quoting Cornell University researchers, Time magazine reports that producing animal protein requires eight times as much fossil fuel as producing a comparable amount of plant protein. Carbon-emissions-wise (which roughly reflects energy use), geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin find that cutting meat consumption by just 20 percent—say, going meatless two days a week—is equal to switching from a standard sedan to a hybrid.
Using knapsacks at supermarkets, drinking free tap water and replacing meat with comparatively inexpensive vegetable protein—these are easy steps. Sure, they will not singularly end our oil dependence, but they will decrease it. As importantly, they will begin building a national culture that takes personal responsibility for combating the ecological crisis we’ve all created.
Are we willing to make minimal behavioral reforms? Are we willing to assume such responsibility? Those, of course, are the crucial questions—the ones nobody wants to ask, but the ones those crude-drenched birds beg us to answer.