It’s coming: a muddy hopelessness that seeps into the soil, skates along the ocean surface, and chokes even the tiniest amoeba. For weeks a poisonous cloud of chemically disbursed oil has been stirred and emulsified into the currents of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s going to come closer to the shore than anyone predicted. Soon we inhabitants of the Gulf coast will be confronted with the most deadly consequences of our species’ careless addiction to fossil fuels. We know with our minds that there is a global petroleum crisis. We know that we fight wars in foreign places to maintain our supply levels. We see many distant regions of the world suffering environmental catastrophe as a result of our collective voracity. Until now it was always “over there,” through the media screen, pouring out of the mouths of idle news spewers. It was no more real than a National Geographic special. Now it’s our turn to experience the true cost of our addiction. Now we will be the ones inside the screen, watching the dead wash up on our beaches.
There’s an exodus occurring. The small chitin-wearing creatures we dig out of the sand with our shuffling feet are sensing the toxic cloud. Along with the turd-like oil globs and the drowned sea life, smaller creatures that normally hide beyond the shore are showing up in the tides, scrambling ashore to escape the poison. They will try to complete millions of years of evolution in an instant by crawling onto the land – for them there is nowhere to go but out. Extensive efforts are being made to rescue as many creatures as possible but where can they go once they’re rehabilitated? Their natural home will soon be a cauldron of black chemical soup. A mass extinction is anticipated. The hypoxic dead zone caused by fertilizer runoff feels warm and itchy compared to the boiling stab of the BP oil spill.
For eons, humans have used fuel to survive. The ability to harness energy from external sources was a major evolutionary advantage to us. Like food, this fuel is part of an intricate ecological web that traces its source to a keystone element: sunlight. All known fuel is comprised of chemically rearranged sunlight - whether absorbed by leaves to construct the building blocks of the food chain, or stored for decades in the tough fibrous flesh of trees that give us firewood, or buried and pressed for millions of years into fossil fuels. When all of this sunlight (concentrated and stored as complex carbon molecules we call flesh) dies, it should be re-funneled directly to the carbon cycle that sustains life. Something in the distant past prevented the immediate decay and consumption of masses of dead matter, perhaps disrupting the natural rhythm of the carbon cycle. It built up in the soil and was eventually buried for millions of years where it continued to change chemically. When these ancient mass graves are exhumed, the result is fossil fuel. Rather than a vast million-year cycle of fossil fuel creation, evidence is pointing to isolated mass extinction events (breaks in the sanity of the normal cycle) as the cause of the oil pockets.
Because of this anomalous excess of ancient dead tissue, human civilizations have been able to multiply exponentially and alter their landscape more than any other creature in the world’s four billion year existence. This is why our population has exploded since the industrial revolution. Most humans alive today are a direct result from this break from the natural flow of the carbon cycle - if not directly in our population, then certainly in the amount we each consume individually. We are literally extracting yesterday’s dead life-energy from the ground and pumping it into our food system (fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based), our industry (through a multitude of inputs, outputs, and externalities), and now our oceans in its raw viscous form.
In a natural cycle an excess of life is followed by and excess of death, as illustrated by the concept of carrying capacity. The existence of such rich pockets of dead creatures indicates a former imbalance that was corrected by a mass die-off. All populations expand when their energy sources are plentiful – and consequently, all inflated energy sources must be depleted eventually to restore balance. It’s reasonable to assert that the removal of these vast pits of carbon from the outer world could have been crucial to humanity’s evolution. With all of this carbon submerged by rock and ocean, we adapted to drinking fresh water and breathing cool oxygen laced air. Somewhere along the frayed yarn of history our species chose to reintroduce all of this former life – now raw carbon – back into the external world, disrupting the balance between active carbon life and stored carbon death. Now this excess of ancient life is positioned to create an unimaginable die-off in the Gulf region.
Gazing ahead at this moment from several decades ago we saw climate change on the horizon and peak oil beyond. We saw the grave consequences of the oil binge (war, pollution, etc.) from a safe zone, from the other side of the news screen. Even though we knew with our minds the damage we were wreaking, with our hearts we had hoped to die another way. Not as hungry fishermen or suicidal greed freaks. We thought we’d have other choices by now – we expected a more spiritual apocalypse where we’d learn to survive the old-fashioned way. We are now victims of our own nostalgia – the same nostalgia that distracted us while the shoddy rigs sucked ancient death from the ocean floor. Now we probably won’t even have the means to survive the nostalgic way. We fly like kamikaze pilots toward the mutual destruction of the world that tried to nurture us and the collective arrogance that insisted we could do it alone. We intended to be the masters of our own destruction. We never meant to take the whole world down with us.