Make no mistake, the oil spill, now infecting almost all of America’s Gulf Coast, is a true disaster, one that it is, perhaps, impossible to overstate. It should also signal an end to some peculiarly exploitative tactics — like offshore drilling, that fevered dream of Republicans, and bizarre concession given by Democrats — and a new era of responsibility. Our goal now should be to sketch the contours of that future. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for which the quality of debate in this country has not prepared us. On either side.
To listen to modern environmental rhetoric, one would imagine that there are only two courses of action: utter ignorance, or complete revolution, either “Drill, baby, drill,” or “Mr. President, get us off oil now!” The latter is what has to happen, but it’s foolish to demand it immediately. This isn’t how science works. You might as well have asked Kennedy to land us on the moon in 1961. Before Apollo, we needed Redstone, Atlas, and Gemini.
This means interim measures. Step one must be composed of realistic, attainable goals. To start, there’s no reason to pursue further offshore drilling, at least not without an extremely heavy regulatory hand. If other options are dangerous, they’re still less dangerous. We can also be confident in the wisdom, both political and environmental, of reining in other potential disasters, like the Marcellus shale project, the failure of which would’ve rendered much of New York uninhabitable.
It should also mean a new tolerance for regulation. Nightmare situations happen, and this is why government exists; because the free market, unrestrained, does not provide for the common welfare. We’ve seen it in finance, and now we’ve seen it in energy. Is there a “free market solution” to strip mining, or its modern, unfathomably destructive analogues?
Step two should focus on an eventual end to dependence on damaging fuels. But the means to that end remain indefinite: in some respects, there are too many options, in others, far too few. The uncertainty can be (and has been) paralyzing: writer’s block, at the national level. The way forward won’t emerge overnight, and we can’t expect it to, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore partial solutions.