By Donella Meadows
–April 13, 1989–
After weeks of front-page publicity, it’s time to put the wreckage of the Exxon Valdez in perspective.
The amount of oil spilled was 240,000 barrels, enough to supply United States consumption for about 20 minutes.
It was one percent of the 26 million barrels of oil normally spilled into the oceans each year — about one out of every thousand barrels produced. Half that amount comes from spills on land that wash into the sea. One-third comes from routine flushing of empty tankers. Only a small fraction comes from shipwrecks or well blow-outs.
At the going price of nearly $20 per barrel the oil spilled in Alaska was worth $4.8 million — 0.006 percent of Exxon’s annual revenues. Exxon’s yearly income is somewhat larger than the entire gross national product of Austria or Argentina or Nigeria or Denmark.
I cite these numbers not to minimize the disaster in Prince William Sound, but to try to get across the enormity and the inevitable messiness of the world’s oil economy.
We don’t usually see the workings of Big Oil. Its activities are attended by the media only in the rare instances of major accidents. When we pull our cars into filling stations or turn up our thermostats, we don’t see ourselves sucking massive tankers down through northern straits, or drawing from hazardous-waste-generating refineries on the Gulf Coast, or releasing air pollution that smogs our cities and changes the climate of the earth. We don’t see ourselves poisoning fisheries and smearing sea birds, otters, seals, and whales — though indirectly, of course, that’s what we’re doing, every day, even when there aren’t spectacular shipwrecks.
If we could comprehend the mighty rivers of oil that flow to us at our command, we wouldn’t have been surprised at the spill in Alaska. We would only have been surprised that it didn’t happen sooner. We wouldn’t make Exxon and its drunken ship captain the only villains of this drama. We are the ones who entrust the oil companies with a super-human task.
Bring us this toxic, foul, wonderful stuff, we say. Bring it at the rate of three enormous shiploads every hour. Bring it from the ends of the earth through stormy seas, employ hundreds of thousands of people to do it, and be sure that not one of them is ever tired, drunk or bored. Thread 8,858 of those massive tankers successfully through that island-studded Arctic sound, and never let your guard down.
Do this so we can drive gas-guzzling cars, heat uninsulated houses, buy products made from oil and toss them away. Whatever you do, don’t hold us to the standards of deliberation and care in our use of energy that we hold you to in your production of it. That would be an unacceptable infringement of our freedoms.
I don’t mean to imply that Exxon and the other oil companies take on their impossible responsibility reluctantly. They have always been eager to assure us of their infallibility. Even as sea creatures are dying in Prince William Sound, they expect us to believe they can invade the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and leave it a wildlife refuge. They are sure that some day, when we have forgotten the Exxon Valdez, we will trust them again.
We are, after all, amazingly gullible. We believe that huge companies will pay unflagging attention to matters that can devastate our neighborhoods, though those same matters are nearly invisible on their bottom lines. We believe that ordinary mortals can pilot oil tankers, run nuclear power plants and chemical plants, and stockpile 50,000 nuclear weapons and never make a mistake. We have witnessed Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, Seveso, Amoco Cadiz, Three Mile Island and have still not awakened from our fantasy that large organizations can carry out complex technologies on a huge scale with total perfection.
If any good can come from the Exxon Valdez, it would be to acknowledge that doing something with a very small risk of very great damage often enough adds up to a virtual certainty of very great damage.
If we can admit that, we will ask whether it’s worth polluting a pristine wildlife refuge for 6 months’ worth of oil.
We’ll insist that the price of energy and chemicals include far more protection for people who live near their production facilities.
We’ll look seriously at the choice between building more nuclear power plants and using electricity more efficiently.
When they tell us that we can “afford” oil or nuclear power but not solar energy, we will ask what they have included in their accounting. Did they count the costs to neighbors, workers, fishermen, the environment, future generations? Did they count the costs of normal, inevitable, predictable, terrible “accidents”?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989