Oil on our hands

By Zainab Lakhani,

The carpet we walk on, the aspirin we take, the bandages that cover up a scrape, the credit card we swipe several times a day, the toothpaste we use to brush our teeth, the perfume we spritz on ourselves without a second thought, what do all these products have in common? They are all made from oil or by machinery and systems that are dependent on oil. Usually, when we think of oil, we think of transportation, and rightly so, our transportation is completely dependent on oil. Cars, planes, ships and trains all are powered by oil. However, we are more closely tied to oil than we realize at first. Synthetic or man-made fibers used in curtains, rugs and ropes are made using petro-chemicals. What is the main ingredient in petro-chemicals? You guessed it, OIL. Oil is used in many fabrics that we wear and use every day, including polyester, nylon and acrylic. As much as we would like to blame others, British Petroleum (bp), the government, the president, doesn’t some of the blame lie directly on us, the consumers? The answer is, definitely. We live in a consumer driven market. What we want is what sells. Every day companies strive and bend over backwards, to get our attention. Maybe if so much of what we consume wasn’t oil dependent, the gulf spill may never have happened.

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The simple truth is that we as a nation are addicted to oil. And this addiction is old and deep rooted. It doesn’t matter on which side of the political spectrum you are, we are all aware of this. Sonia Hamel, a consultant for the Climate Change Policy and Program says, even though we make up only 5% of the world’s population, American’s guzzle down 25% of the earth’s oil supply, and only 2% of it comes from its own soil.

Try imagining a world without oil. It seems quite impossible since we are so dependent on it in our daily lives. The electricity we use every day in a multitude of things is generated by refined forms of our substance of use. Crude oil is processed into petroleum which shows up in products like detergents, fertilizers, medicines, paints, synthetic fibers, synthetic rubber and of course, plastic. What would we do without plastic? Even though recycling helps, the energy and resources that go into making plastic is costly to not only our environment but to our economy and health.

How costly is this addiction? Well, if the recent gulf oil spill is any indication, very. Thousands of gallons of oil gushed into the ocean for 86 days straight, and now we are faced with an unimaginable clean-up effort. The scariest part is that there is no way of knowing what prolonged effects will arise from this environmental tragedy. Our coasts, wildlife and fisherman are suffering the consequences. Five of seven of the world’s turtle species are found in the Gulf of Mexico, and now they are washing up dead on the shores. Tourism in the area is suffering, something that is relied upon to keep their economy afloat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that the oil will reach Florida by mid-August. Already, local Florida recreational fishermen and surfers are reporting sharks very close to shore as they migrate away from the spill. Though for our generation this spill is a big one and has rocked us to our cores, oil spills are not a new phenomenon. They have been occurring since the days of long skirts and floral prints. They’re just getting bigger and badder as we are going deeper and nearing the limits of human engineering.

Oil spills are not the only negative effect of our addiction. Ever wonder why we are drilling so far out and deep into the ocean to get our latest fix? It’s because we are running out. We are depleting the earth’s fossil fuels at a rapid rate and are expected to reach “peak oil” by the year 2020, after which we will experience a steady decline in production.

Another major negative side effect to oil use is global warming. The pollutants that are released during production, distribution and use of oil are causing irreparable damage to our environment through global warming. The flood in Rio de Janeiro, that has killed hundreds and left many more homeless and at risk, is just one example of global warming that has caused the rise of sea levels which are threatening low lying land. The horn of Africa is another example; Signs of climate change are showing up through melting glaciers, temperatures warming in already drought-prone areas, is causing long-lasting drought, famine and disease spread. Another tragedy that is occurring because of global warming is coral bleaching. The imax movie “Coral Reef adventure” highlights the devastation occurring in these living and life-giving oceanic structures (http://www.coralfilm.com/).

So what needs to be done, how do we cure this addiction we have to oil? At a recent Climate Legislative Panel Discussion in Cambridge, experts gathered to discuss the oil and climate issue. Rob Garrity, who has served many years in government and is now the director of Massachusetts Climate Action Network, says that change lies in the hand of the public. He encourages us all to start by making changes in our own home and then move to local government. It is time to make your voices heard, don’t by cynical of the government, they are here to serve us after all. It will be a long and hard process, but humans have achieved so much, and there is no doubt that we are only steps away from a renewable energy source. Till then, there needs to be a cut down in consumption. Electric and hybrid cars are worth investing in. Energy efficient light bulbs, replacing old and out of date air conditioners and heating systems are all just the tip of the melting iceberg. Go to http://www.energystar.gov/ for advice on how to make your home or place of business more energy efficient.

The truth of the matter is, even if we aren’t ready to make changes, we have to. Not jsutt because of the devastating tragedies such as the Gulf oil spill, or the loss of human lives due to the resulting climate change, or the fact that we are running out soon and need to find an alternative, but because it is our duty as humankind to leave a habitable world for future generations. A Native American quote summarizes this sentiment very well, “We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.”