Late yesterday afternoon, enjoying the blueness of the haze-shrouded mountains and the grayness of departing squalls as Koko and I drove to the beach, contributing to the carbon load that is helping to change the planet’s climate, the sight of all the dead roosters and mynahs and various unidentifiable lumps of flesh in the road got me thinking about the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 oil workers and is continuing to kill marine life.
Some scientists say it could even destroy the entire ecosystem there, and with it all the associated jobs and incomes.
There's just no denying the effect that our love affair with cheap energy is deadly business.
What's happening now in the Gulf is a vivid reminder of how much we depend upon the natural world, even as we dismiss it, destroy it, drive over it, drill into it. And although the leak is happening far away, it should be hitting us uncomfortably close to home, seeing as we are nearly totally dependent on imported oil here in the Hawaiian Islands.
So what to do? There’s a lot of talk about growing biofuels in the Islands, but all of the serious farmers I’ve discussed this with say that it’s a pipe dream. Our land and labor is too costly, so just as Hawaii could not compete in growing sugar cane and pineapple, they say, we can’t compete with South America and Australia and other places in cost-effectively producing biofuels. And that’s especially true on little Kauai.
“Our land area is so tiny that doing a commodity like fuel here is laughable,” Farmer Jerry said.
But that hasn’t stopped the Navy and Department of Agriculture from signing an agreement to expand production of biofuels for military purposes, using Hawaii as the testing ground.
As a result, the Navy is already talking about using some 7,500 acres of land in Kekaha to grow biofuels for its own purposes. Small farmers growing food there fear they will be pushed out or forced to grow biofuels for whatever price the Navy wants to pay.
“We’re just getting past this plantation mentality and approach and now we’re seeing the new plantation in,” a Kauai farmer observed.
Meanwhile, a friend sent me an email with a link to a New York Times article about how the U.S. is lagging well behind Europe in the use of wast-to-energy (WTE) plants, with the comment:
Interesting argument for environmentalist resistance to the trash-to-energy issue - that we should be putting our bucks into zero waste, recycling, instead - charmingly Utopian.
He was referencing the reason for much of the opposition cited in the article:
“Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Investing in garbage as a green resource is simply perverse when governments should be mandating recycling, she said. “Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste.”
I’ve had my concerns about waste-to-energy plants, too. But I do have to wonder if it makes environmental sense to be shipping our recyclables to Asia and burying those that don’t get recycled. Because the reality is that zero waste is not anywhere on the horizon for Hawaii, unless the entire economy collapses and the planes and ships stop coming in.
At the same time, we see our fossil-fuel dependent utility, KIUC, depends on more people using more electricity to keep the costs down. In discussing the pending increase in electric bills, Chief Financial Officer David Bissell noted:
The co-op is “still getting the revenue we needed,” Bissell said. And since the original filing, the economy has been showing improvement and the “impact of increased sales” are projected.
Visitor arrivals increasing is “primarily” expected but, “of course, there is no guarantee in it,” he said.
We’re caught up in a deranged system where the true cost of producing energy is not reflected in the price we pay on our utility bills and at the pump; where places like Costco can charge less because the true cost of making and disposing of all that packaging isn’t reflected in the price tag; where consumers are rewarded for consuming more.
So we can put up solar panels and talk about biofuels and WTE plants and wave energy and hydro and all the rest. But until we deal with the root cause — an economic system that fails to factor health problems, environmental destruction and death into the cost of energy — we won’t be making any real progress in addressing the issue.
But in the meantime, as Sarah Gilbert writes in Daily Finance, we can start getting clear that it all comes down to the personal choices and actions of each and every one of us:
It's hard to escape our part environmental disasters -- though we certainly do an excellent job of deluding ourselves that we can't restrain our consumption. Just a 14% reduction of driving would mean all U.S.-based oil production could stop immediately. We use 39.9 million barrels of oil a day to drive, and total U.S. oil production is just 5.6 million barrels a day (a shocking 1% of which is currently leaking in the Gulf of Mexico).
But if more of us could face ourselves in the mirror and pin the blame for this disaster on our own choices and habits, perhaps the next disaster could be averted.