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Tess Vigeland: The BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is finally capped. But it will be years before anyone knows exactly how widespread the effects are on the area’s economy and environment. What might be easier to judge is its effect on our habits. It takes less than a day for this country to go through the 205 million gallons of oil that poured into the Gulf over three months. So did all those videos of oil-slicked animals and beaches and horror stories from Gulf residents prompt us all to action?
Here with some answers from our Sustainability Desk is Krissy Clark. Welcome Krissy.
Krissy Clark: Thanks Tess.
Vigeland: So a spill of this magnitude surely must have affected our oil consumption?
Clark: Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like many people have changed their habits in any way when it comes to this stuff. Consider this MSNBC poll that came out recently: 65 percent of the people asked if they had changed their habits due to the oil spill said no.
Vigeland: Well, of course, we did not become oil addicts over night, right? And I remember even a couple of years ago when gas prices hit almost $4 a gallon and everybody said, “Oh, this is when we’ll get off oil.” Eh. Uh uh.
Clark: Right. And that actually even changed our habits more than this oil spill did.
Clark: But here’s a brief history, just to sort of put this in perspective. What you might call the “petrochemical age,” when petroleum products really became the material and energy basis for our lives, that didn’t kick into gear until World War II, when it was a matter of national security. We had this urgent need for raw materials, and so government worked with private industry to come up with alternatives, and they turned to oil and the hydro-carbon molecule, which was very flexible. And then of course, once the war was over, there was a huge expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and that dramatically changed the way our cities and towns were laid out. So all of this created a world where we used oil in lots of different ways and we used a lot of it.
Vigeland: And we still do. I mean we have cars, we have airplanes, power plants, we use oil to heat our homes, even run our air conditioners. This is a lot of very hard stuff to give up.
Clark: Yeah, and in fact, about 85 percent of the oil Americans use is all for all of that stuff that you just mentioned. The other 15 percent goes into the chemical industry to make industrial products and more than 6,000 consumer products that we use.
Vigeland: Ah yes, I hear a quote coming to mind, “One word for you: Plastics.”
Clark: But it’s not actually just the obvious things like plastic bags and bottled water. I started to do a thought experiment as I was doing research for all of this. And I thought, “OK, what’s the first petroleum product I encounter when I wake up in the morning?” And you actually don’t even have to wake up, you’re lying on it, because the mattress is full of stuffing that has various synthetic materials. Then you have the alarm clock, of course, that’s probably plastic. Then there’s some finish on the wood of your bed, most likely, that is made from a petroleum product. When you get into the bathroom, your medicine cabinet is full of cosmetics and medicines, which are all based on oil. So it’s everywhere.
Vigeland: OK. I give up then. I mean, what am I supposed to do?
Clark: And that’s the thing. I know this is really annoying to say, but on an individual level, there really is not a lot that you can do.
Vigeland: Wow. What happened to sustainability?
Clark: I know, and it’s hard because I know that, on the one hand, there are a lot of individuals out there who are well-intentioned and who are trying to do their part, but I spoke with a guy named Harvey Molotch, who’s an environmental sociologist at New York University. And he said as many well-intentioned people as there are out in the world who might want to cut back on their oil consumption, mass behavioral change is a very hard thing to do. And he actually found hope in cigarettes.
Clark: The idea is that like oil, smoking is something that is very hard to quit on your own. But in the last several years, smokers have actually started voting for smoking bans and cigarette taxes, in the hopes that since they can’t quit by themselves, maybe they can at least make it harder for themselves to smoke. So this environmental sociologist, Harvey Molotch, says that we should take a similar approach to oil. If people want to be less dependent on oil, they need to vote for policies that make using oil harder and not using oil easier. Things like taxes that will discourage people over time from using cars or encourage people to make life decisions about where they live or things that on a higher government scale are changing national policies, like the way we design highways or plan cities.
Vigeland: Has he gotten himself off oil?
Clark: I asked him that and here’s what he said.
Harvey Molotch: No. I have not done a thing. I do the right thing only ’cause it’s easy and I think that’s the solution is to make it much easier for people to do the right thing.
Vigeland: There you have it. Thanks so much Krissy.
Clark: You’re welcome.
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