The only reason that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig is the big environmental story of the past fortnight, I’d argue, is because it is within easy reach of TV crews. Journalists can, without too much hassle, fan out to coastal towns and nature reserves to wait for the oil to start washing ashore as 4,000 barrels of oil continue to seep out of the blown-out well daily.
This is environmentally calamitous and a profound reminder of the consequences of our deepening fossil fuel habit, but beyond that, is also an damning illustration of the fact that it is only a problem because it appears on TV screens and business and environmental columns. If a similar accident happened anywhere outside America’s backyard, would BP be rushing to undertake damage control as desperately?
There will be knock-on effects for the future of offshore drilling in the US – and Arnold Schwarzenegger has already withdrawn support for plans to do so off the Californian coast. But would it not be better to do so, even in places like Alaska’a Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as Sarah Palin would have it), to open eyes to the cost of that fossil fuel habit?
Because in effect, the costs of meeting the increasing appetite for oil are outsourced, where others meet the social, economic and environmental costs involved – be it in the Niger Delta and the distortions upon the Nigerian economy, or in propping up the Saudi royal family and its rather dangerous brand of Wahabbi Islam. Would it not be morally preferable to meet that demand via drilling off the US coast, rather than in distant lands?
If the protection of our environment comes at the expense of others, might it be an expression of selfishness rather than virtue? The more we focus on defending our environment, the less we may focus on environments outside our borders; activism can become anesthesia. Domestic restrictions on drilling have had the unintended effect of insulating our tender consciences from the worst impacts of oil extraction. Out of sight, out of mind. For that reason, could it be that drilling rigs within sight of Key West or in a part of Alaska that is an Alamo of conservationism would be a useful thing? Perhaps a few more drilling platforms in our most precious lands and waters would make us understand that the true cost of oil is not posted at the gas pump.
The more general philosophical point at the heart of the issue here is whether we value strangers in distant lands any more than fellow compatriots. What exactly do the responsibilities of nationality mean? And what are the responsibilities we have to strangers, especially in a world where globalised supply and consumption chains create causal links between ourselves and people on the other side of the world? Is a clean environment in our backyard worth more than others’ backyards?
Dabbling in a direct answer is only going to expose my woeful grasp of political theory, so let me restrict myself to a remark, as I began, about how things only matter insofar as they appear on TV screens and in newsprint. At a time when these relationships between distant consumers and distant producers are better understood than ever before, coverage of international issues is on a steady decline, as the media industry faces financially testing times.
The CNN effect still has its day, such as images from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami triggering an outpouring of international fundraising. But as media outlets close their international bureaux, our ‘world news’ relies on a narrowing pool of correspondents, viewpoints and expertise. It makes dramatic international intervention in the absence of compelling ‘national interests’, such as the US in Somalia, or the UK in Sierra Leone, much less likely.
Perhaps we’re lucky, in a way, that tar sands extraction, a source of immense environmental and social dislocation in search of ‘hard’, less easily extracted oil, takes place mainly in Canada. First Nations peoples still face a struggle to draw attention to their cause. But it probably beats being in Nigeria.
Might Sarah Palin’s ‘drill, baby, drill’ not be so far wrong, even if for rather different reasons?