Fierce Green Fire: Feeling something–anything–about Gulf oil spill is the key

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

Some topics are easy to write about, others much less so. Each of the last several weeks, I have sat down with pen and paper in hopes of writing something eloquent about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill currently affecting the Gulf Coast. Each time, I stopped. You see, I have wanted to point out the unique nature of this spill. I have wanted to encourage people to get involved and change their habits. I have wanted to point out that even here in Illinois, we, too, are affected. Most of all, I have wanted to offer hope.

This is one of the most difficult columns I have ever written. My first draft of this piece was actually loaded with numbers…gallons of oil, dead animals and dollars of lost wages each totaling in the millions. But to be honest, those numbers are far too high for me to truly comprehend. So instead, I will focus on the importance of feelings. While impossible to quantify, in searching for the right words for this installment of Fierce Green Fire, I was reminded that sometimes feelings are all we have to hold on to.

I was 8 years old when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. I have distinct memories of watching the news with my parents, bombarded nightly with images of birds, otters, turtles, and even whales covered in sludge, their carcasses piled high on the equally blackened sand. I recall stories of unemployed Alaskans and a fear among many that the area would never recover economically or ecologically. I remember an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and an equally intense, albeit naïve, wish that people could simply stop using oil.

In some ways, I feel as though I am 8 years old again. I feel the same sense of betrayal and disappointment. I feel impotent and distanced. What I do not feel is surprise.

Even though as an 8-year-old, the Valdez felt new and unusual, I have learned since that it was anything but. Oil spills happen regularly, and they have basically been occurring since the first oil wells were dug. A full century ago, in 1910, a spill on land referred to as the “Lakeview Gusher” poured 378 million gallons onto southern California and took a year-and-a-half to stop. While I would love to say we learned from our mistakes, things only got worse—the other nine largest oil spills in history have all occurred since 1967.

Though I am angry, hurt and grieving, I have done my best to stay positive and get involved. I have registered with organizations from Audubon to the National Wildlife Federation hoping to travel to Louisiana to help clean animals or in some other way minimize the effects of this spill. The phone does not ring. So I sit, wait and write, steadily losing the optimistic spirit that I naively clung to as a child.

There is no excuse for this! When I shout, I am quickly reminded that the only people listening are the people in the apartment across the hall…and when they yell back at me, their use of expletives suggests it probably has nothing to do with oil. I wonder if they feel anything about the spill. I wonder if they even know it has happened.

As I said, I wanted to point out the unique nature of this spill…but history shows this is just the latest in a long history of mistakes. I wanted to encourage people to get involved and change their habits…but many organizations seem not to want the help, and to be quite blunt, if people wanted to use less oil, they would have by now. I wanted to point out that Illinois residents are affected…but outside of the sad imagery on television, the biggest impact for most of us will be to alter our summer vacation plans.

The last goal I had was to offer hope. Though I am far from optimistic, the one hope I hold on to comes from the fact that this still makes me so incredibly angry. Though it may seem trivial, at least by being angry and shouting at walls it proves I haven’t gone numb. Maybe that is the key… feeling something…feeling anything. Whether this most recent spill makes you feel angry, hurt, sad or something else, I applaud you. Indeed, while it’s the people who feel nothing that got us into this mess, the only ones that can make anything better are those like you and me who still want to shout, fight and feel.

From the June 2-8, 2010 issue

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