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Photo courtesy of Olga Bonfiglio

 

Blue Bayou

Olga Bonfiglio

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

Just last month I took an amazing airboat ride in the Barataria Preserve of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, just 38 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and saw alligators, fish, turtles, nutria, birds, Spanish moss, bald cypress (which can live to be 1,000 years old) and live oaks (that live hundreds of years, too). The guide, a Cajun who grew up in the area, discussed how these living things all were interconnected to make the bayou what it is. The air was sweet and clean and I could understand why people have loved this place and made a living of hunting, fishing and trapping. The bayou isn’t just a swamp. It is a way of life!

The bayou is a French word meaning slow-moving waterway. It is an offshoot of the Mississippi River and 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 unique region. But it’s taken only the past 60 years of human activity to endanger it.

Saltwater intrusion and erosion threaten to destroy 60 percent of the bayou by 2040, said Richard Campanella, associate director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University. He spoke recently at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in New Orleans.

The reason this is happening is due in part to the activities of the oil and gas industry. This oil spill will surely speed up the process.

The threat to the bayou 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.

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 make the area more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. 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 also spoke at the APA conference.

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.

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 extract—some of which is available through the deep-water off-shore rigs!

Second, as we all know, carbon-based fuels are choking our planet’s atmosphere. 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 foreign and military policy in the world’s oil-producing regions.

For example, 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.

Why Afghanistan? We were told it was retaliation against the 9/11 Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorists, but it was really about oil. In the late 1990s several oil companies proposed that a Trans-Afghanistan Gas Pipeline be built to transport oil from the rich fields of Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Pakistan or India. Another thousand-mile pipeline was proposed to run between Türkmenabat (former Chardzou), Turkmenistan, to Pakistan's Arabian Sea Coast. Operatives dismissed these projects because of political and security instability in the region.

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. So far these wars have cost 4,402 dead Americans in Iraq and 1,060 in Afghanistan, a combined wounded of 37,641 and nearly $1 trillion, which is borrowed money from China. 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 to us importing more oil, which then left us less self-sufficient and extremely vulnerable to the politics of 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 network of pipelines that fuels 250 million vehicles. So while the media focus on BP and government regulators, we must recognize that our demand for oil makes all of us Americans responsible for the oil spill, too.

As the oil spill continues to grow from its current size of 46,000 square miles (an area about the size of Pennsylvania) and endanger not only Louisiana bayous and the Gulf of Mexico but Florida and the Atlantic coast, let us take time to reflect seriously on our relationship to oil:

·Should we continue our insatiable thirst for oil even though we are threatening ourselves, future generations and Nature itself?

·Should we send more troops and spend more money to fight these oil wars?

Is oil really worth all the death and destruction it foists on people and the environment?

The only way out of our oil addiction is for individuals, families and communities to reduce our dependence on oil. We have long learned that we cannot expect such a commitment from government or corporations who engage in finger pointing, which is really just another dodge from addressing the problem.

Neither are the answers to our oil problem just about finding technological alternatives designed to keep up our current lifestyles.

If there’s a lesson in this oil spill it is that we must change our way of life to one that is less centered around fossil fuels.

As a start, we can prefer to walk and bike; 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 get ourselves off oil or we will sacrifice not only our precious bayous, its wildlife, our coastal cities and businesses but eventually our planet.

 

 

Olga Bonfiglio writes about the local food movement, social justice, religion and travel. Heroes of a Different Stripe,  which is about the peace movement during the Iraq War, is her first book. In her early career she served as public relations director for Nazareth College and Borgess Medical Center. As an academic, she has taught business communication at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and social studies education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Olga is currently a professor and director of the Education Program at Kalamazoo College.  She volunteers as a gardener and goat herder at the Dancing Turtle Dairy Farm in Texas Township. She lives with her husband, Kurt Cobb, and Tucker the Cat in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 

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