You Own a Part of This

by Karen

I missed a Friday post. I remembered it when I woke at 3AM Sunday morning, so at 5AM, still not sleeping, I decided to get up and look at some of my 28 partial drafts. I saw this one about listening to a radio report about the Deep Horizon oil spill. I thought it might be dated and ready to delete, but when I got into it, I decided to work with it. I’ve been working with it for a while now.

10 years ago I heard audio from a Louisiana based employee representative of BP. He was speaking to local fisherman. They opposed use of Corexit, the dispersant BP was using to break up the oil spill ( I did too, and I still do ). The fishermen were pointing out that Alaskan fisheries had not recovered from the use of the same dispersant following the Exxon Valdez spill in vastly smaller quantities 21 years earlier. The BP rep was stressing how important Corexit was to the short term management of the immediate crisis and pulled out a few words that had to have been pre-planned. He said “If you drive an automobile, you own a part of this spill.” It was powerfully delivered and very effective, as though the words had never been uttered before. And, his point is true, at least in some respects, but not fully true in the respect that he was going for.

True, without demand, the wells would not be out there pumping away in the gulf, or anywhere else. But, it’s also true that practical electric cars were on the scene in the 1880s, and that companies like Exxon Mobil pushed the use of fossil fuels to the point of promoting Climate Change Denial in the 1990s. The first calculations on increases in carbon dioxide causing increases in global surface temperature were back in the 1890s. Those calculations were made in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius. The relationship has been known for that long, and still some companies prefer not to acknowledge that human caused climate change is well accepted by the overwhelming majority of people who have enough information to form an opinion on the matter.

Better solutions for a thriving society don’t come from the same place in our hearts and minds that Climate Change Denial did.

Where would we be now if the same dollars and work-hours that poured into promoting Climate Change Denial had funded R&D and the diversification of petroleum and other companies into cleaner technology? You don’t have to give up jobs or market share when you diversify and provide products that are sustainable and wanted. You just get healthier consumers living in a cleaner world who can provide you a return on your investment in brand loyalty over a longer lifespan. We go to better places when we ask better questions, and “How do I control my customers?” has never been one of the better questions. We haven’t honestly needed to buy gas to power our drive for 136 years. The really, really big thing though- We don’t ever need to buy something that hurts us, or others, whether that’s an idea or a product. Think of where we could be if we were asking different questions. Where could we be if we thought about where we’re going before we got there?

It would be convenient to blame the problem on industry and feel no responsibility. We could lay it all at the feet of industries that mislead and misdirect. Customers aren’t in the company’s chain of command, we don’t know about the level of risk they take in providing the products we buy. What’s more, we don’t have any say, right? Not so fast. The part of that BP representative’s statement that gives it power is the part of demand that we customers do own. We own our choices. If we hadn’t started to make different choices with regard to oil, we wouldn’t have multiple sources like this one calling peak oil.

Every dollar we spend is an economic vote and we choose who gets to stay in business and who does not. We own our decisions. I’m not talking cancel culture here. It’s way too easy for cancel culture to involve a quick decision made on the whim of a heavily sponsored influencer with a trending micro-bit of information and a moment’s thought that’s disconnected from everything that makes it relevant, and we can end up rejecting whole things and people when we just need to fix parts and share knowledge. What I’m actually talking about is attentive or mindful consumption.

Research increasingly shows that people are willing, even eager to support businesses and make buying decisions, even pay more based on a broader, inclusive set of criteria. So, why don’t we do it more often?

Well, it’s not as easy as we’d like it to be is it? Life and choices are complicated, and humans are…human. Change is challenging. Between greenwashing, the amount of complication, and kinds of interconnectedness a single product can have, it starts to feel like it could take longer to choose your purchase than to use it. Figuring out who’s doing the better thing takes effort. It even takes effort to choose your criteria. Is it strictly environmental? Do you expect the company to pay workers a living wage? What if it takes the workers on the other side of the world sewing up your new shoes a year to earn a bicycle? And, what about access to healthcare? The guys doing the wrong thing are disguising themselves as righteous (and, not just on the environmental front). Transparency claimed is not always transparency given. People have to figure out not just what’s right, but also who’s telling the truth.

Meanwhile, disasters like Exxon Valdez fade from memory and the Deep Horizon spill happens somewhere else to someone else. It’s not completely a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) thing. We don’t have just oil spills to think about. It’s overwhelming when hurricanes are coming harder and faster than ever before. When those hurricanes along with the extraordinary flooding across the heartland spread hazardous waste in ways the average person doesn’t even know how to think about. The interconnected path of cause and effect as it travels through the web of life and business is not fully knowable, especially when life is coming at us so hard and fast right now. There are so many critical subjects competing for our mind space and dollars that even the people who care the most can’t always figure out which pearls to hang on to and which pebbles to throw out.

It shouldn’t surprise me that so many people miss connections. Connections are my thing, and I still miss them too. But, it does surprise me that people try to separate human costs from natural costs from economic costs, from social costs, from every other cost. I wonder that people who profess to be on the side of one of these can believe that they oppose the others, or think that they could be separable. All of these systems functioning in balance support us, and functioning outside of balance threaten us. We rely on a complete set of systems that fuel each other.  We pollute our own bodies when we pollute the the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. We are altering our life support system faster and more drastically than it can absorb and the effects are coming to a climax.

2020 hasn’t been a year of exceptionally bad luck on a global scale, it’s been the result of millions of little decisions made over millions of moments in time by the influencers and the influenced. Every bit of what has knocked us off our feet was predicted. Yes, every freaking bit, and it was ignored or pushed aside by enough people to allow it to happen in spite of the warnings. We own 2020. It is us. All. Of. Us. I can’t think of anyone who wants to hear that. It’s been a rough year. Nobody wants to be responsible for it, yet here we are. And, there we go. “I really don’t care” isn’t a viable option any more. We’ve used enough “don’t care” cards to get us here, and we’ve got to use enough “I do care” cards to get us there. It’s not always easy. It took me way too long to remember to take a water bottle, but when I do, I’m not responsible for single use plastics and I don’t have to overspend to hydrate. That alone won’t save us, but it’s a step. And, that all we have to do to win this. Start taking steps.

I have loved the Gulf of Mexico for all of my life. Digging my toes in the sand and watching the sun set there, or across the planet restores my soul. I’ve loved a lot of other places over the years, cloud forests and wetlands, rivers and islands. I want those places and the people in them to be the best, have the best, know the best they can. We can’t know everything. We won’t find every connection. We won’t detect every liar. Even the most earnest among us will make bad decisions. But, we do own 2020, and the only way out is through it. We can pick what we love most, we can pick something close, we can pick something reachable or something knowable and we can try to make it as good as we can. Think about choices, ask questions, share information and build a future. Fill out customer feedback. Let businesses know what you care about. Vote. Let the people you voted for know what’s important to you. Spend just a minute or three checking to see which of the companies you’re thinking of doing business with is dumping in someone’s backyard and which one took care of its employees as best it could through the pandemic. Maybe you can’t know which choice is best. Which choice is better? Do that. Repeat.