Remember the Exxon Valdez! Long may it live in infamy!

An essay by Ken Wear, posted January 2000
Quotations appear in RED

The port of Valdez lies on Prince William Sound at the south end of the Alaska Pipe Line, which extends 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay (north of the Arctic Circle). Prince William Sound was a pristine seashore area, incubator and home of countless species of birds, land animals and sea creatures (including prolific fisheries for salmon and herring). It was unique in this world's habitats -- a land of beauty and peace and plenty.

Extensive design features of the pipe line itself, intended to minimize the impact on wildlife (which were required initially in order to gain approval of the project), may yet prove inadequate, but there have been no significant reported accidents in the 22 years of pipeline operation. But preparation for possible disaster apparently ended at the tanker loading facility at Valdez (on Prince William Sound). Environmentalists had long insisted double-hulled tankers be used, but shipping interests refused. All went well for over 6000 tanker fillings when the unthinkable (but predictable) happened: March 24, 1989, a drunken skipper let his ship run aground, rupturing its hull and spilling more than ten million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The disastrous Exxon-Valdez oil spill had occurred.

QuoteYou knew it would happen. What else did you expect?EndQuote

The effect on wildlife was devastating. Despite massive efforts at clean-up -- and nobody really knew what was needed -- the nesting and feeding areas were totally fouled for two or three years. YEARS! And one year interrupts Nature’s reproduction cycle. I am told the residue of oil is still in abundance these ten years later. Life does go on and Nature will work its way -- as some say, QuoteIt will recover.EndQuote -- but the mix of species present has been forever changed. Our wisdom is not sufficient to tell us if it is a net improvement, but our intuition tells us there has been a terrible tragedy and a new balance of Nature with the different mix of species may be decades away. And, economically, the men and villages depending on fish for their livelihood will never be the same.

Spoilage of Nature on a massive scale. As a consequence of heedless pursuit of gain. Was there any remorse? Not detectable -- at least initially -- not until public reaction hit the gas pumps across the nation. Quote It was bound to happen. What else did you expect? EndQuote Such pigheadedness! Shame! QuoteWe have done nothing wrong -- only what was expected of us.EndQuote Environmentalists had been shouting for years. QuoteOur duty is only to our shareholders. EndQuoteTheir immediate profit versus all else, even their own future. Where is the sense of stewardship of our environment?

Stewardship! Or the general welfare! Destruction of a natural area whose ecology has been forever changed. Not even concern for their fellow humans whose lives would be turned upside down by loss of livelihoods and compromise of homeland.

There are many voices demanding stewardship. In many areas of activity. The dilemma we face results from pitting today’s good against tomorrow’s good. Immediate profit and jobs and pleasures versus loss of future quality of life -- or life itself.

A Pacific Northwest woodsman was quoted: QuoteI have a job. Who cares about a few salmon?EndQuote Damn the future, eh?!

True, some voices of stewardship are strident -- provocative -- heavy-handed in their insistence on attention to their causes. But, in the face of pervasive apathy on the part of the public and inertia on the part of economic interests, their tactics seem justified, even inadequate. At least someone cares!

We were headed toward certain extinction of bird life until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded an alarm we could not ignore. Its bare-faced factuality awakened the public to the consequences of continuing our unthinking use of insecticides, etc. But birds are more an esthetic interest than a commercial interest.

Looking back, we fouled the oceans and fished aggressively until whaling and fishing declined precipitously. Even then, with smaller catches, higher prices at the marketplace, and pictures of raw waste washed ashore, it seemed difficult to accept the proof that had been so forcefully thrust into our faces. Only then were dumping and catches and destruction of species curtailed. The oceans will remain, but will their bounty recover? At present that is uncertain.

We waited until the Exxon Valdez accident to demand stewardship. There was never really any question whether it would happen, only a question of how damning it would be. And in other parts of our globe oil spills are still a -- not possibility -- probability. Can’t we develop the technology to contain and recover?

Looking ahead, what kind of proof do we need that Earth’s population is beyond carrying capacity: leveling every square foot of forest: loss of all animal species except people and their pets: massive famine so that even seed stocks, cockroaches and ants are wiped out for food? A physicist calculated that, at the then-current (1940s) rate of population growth, by the year 2500 or so the total mass of humanity would equal the mass of Earth itself -- an obvious impossibility. (Imagine crawling over each other with no ground, only people, underneath our feet, like maggots in ripe garbage.)

What kind of proof do we need that our atmosphere is warming: inundation of coastal cities following melting of the glaciers: half the Earth a desert: fouling the air with sulfur so we have to wear gas masks: continuous and unremitting storms? Of course there’s inertia by commercial interests, but if our world dies, theirs dies, too!

Since the Malthusian scare (that the world food supply would run short) it has become fashionable to deride all thought of dire consequences of our heedless growth. But, unless we reform, life for our descendants will be so sterile, so barren, that we would not ourselves wish to live it.

What follows the demise of our civilization? It will take millions of years for natural forces to concentrate ores to give whatever intelligence arises next time the materials from which to develop a new civilization. Do you suppose there will be remnants of what we did so they can learn from our mistakes? Will the growth of their science parallel our achievements? Will it be again, as it possibly was before, that millions of years will culminate in a few thousand years of a civilization that founders or destroys itself in heedless pursuit of its own achievements?

Long live the memory of the Exxon Valdez. May it galvanize us into recognition that life holds no guarantees, that what gods there be will let us pursue our folly, that we will either practice stewardship or pay the Piper.

If you wish to offer an opinion or suggest valuable additions to this post, you may send an e-mail that will bypass my spam filter if you use as Subject -- I read your post about he Exxon Valdez -- exactly as you see it here. Click here for the e-mail form.
Environmental concerns are also touched upon in the essay on energy, which you may view by clicking here.
And the Exxon Valdez disaster figures in notions of social justice as part of our social contract, which you may view by clicking here. (or limiting your inquiry to social justice, click here.)
The Lifeboat Foundation has been formed to explore the various ways civilization may end and various strategies for mankind's survival of such a catastrophe. You may go to their web site by
clicking here. One proposal to overcome the near-total destruction of civilization appears by clicking here.

Afterthought: Sadly, little over a decade later, public aversion to such a monumental catastrophe has relegated it to the ash bin of history, and the cries for reform have been silenced by more immediate concerns. Should our species survive it will surely be an accident rather than deliberate attention to the needs of the Nature we all depend on for sustenance.

Comment added 4-25-06
In the larger scheme of things there are likely other worlds where intelligence has arisen. Because of our intelligence and traits of inquisitiveness, exploration, inventiveness and greed, we have developed a civilization heavily dependent on the products of our own workmanship. No doubt it has happened on other worlds although, over trackless time, because of civilization's instability, there may be few civilizations coincident with ours. Bound as we are in time and space, we can't know of these other peoples and learn from them -- or they from us -- nor can we learn if there is a pattern of increasing intelligence and evolution of science followed by thoughtless pursuit of development -- or personal power -- producing conditions that adversely affect the continuity of life, thus ending that civilization. The rise of intelligence leading to its own destruction. I marvel at the patience of deity in seeking combination of traits of intelligent peoples whose civilization can endure.

I recall the short-term responses to the oil spill: Thousands wished to help clean-up; the destruction of wild life distressed the public; Exxon poured $2 billion dollars into efforts to repair the damage while no one really knew how to proceed with such massive and irreparable loss. Last year's tsunami, this year's Hurricane Katrina and Pakistani earthquakes, brought out our charitable instincts and the human miseries will be remedied; the Exxon-Valdez disaster also stirred tremendous responses but Nature had been disrupted and recovery to some sort of balance of species will take decades or longer. We disrupt Nature at our peril.

Will your great-grandchildren curse you for leaving nothing for them? For your heedless pursuit of self that robbed them to appease your own vanity?

What of the aftermath of the disaster in Prince William Sound? Do we have oil interests gloating that the spoilation has occurred so there is no longer any interest in protecting the environment? So they can now have their way in raping the environment in their quest for profits with no further regard for the aftermath? Has there been exploitation of real estate resulting from reparations to the population near the Sound? Might be an opportunity for real estate development so newcomers can sit on their duffs and take advantage of efforts to compensate former fishermen for the loss of career! What greed! And these are our fellow human beings!! Don't you feel the revulsion!!!

Is it any wonder that populations resist petroleum development in coastal areas, on the North Slope, in Utah? Is there any way we can have both development and pristine environments? One would think oil interests would be falling all over themselves to devise and install technology that could overcome public resistance. Of course, government has to move to make it legally possible to explore, and the NIMBY complex makes that hazardous to political careers.

Civilization needs the petroleum until alternates can be brought on line, but civilization also needs residential areas, parks and other amenities to make continued existence worth the effort.

Exxon is the world's largest oil company; only they continue to use single-walled tankers; all other large oil companies use double-walled tankers. And it would have cost $0.01 per share to switch. Exxon declared 3-4 years after the spill that Nature had recovered; yet today, of the 27 species whose populations had been tracked, only 10 have 'recovered,' leaving 17 uncertain, after these 20 years; there may be hope for some, but a number of species such as killer and orca whales likely will never recover. A recent visitor lifted a rock from the beach and watched the hole fill with oil. Herring, which had been the back bone of fishing and the food source for flocks of birds, have not recovered (and neither has bird life). Shamefully, the U.S. Supreme Court has reduced damage awards to ten cents on the dollar (after nearly 20 years, so many of those whose lives were wrecked have died in poverty). Demand for oil has increased, as has ocean-bound traffic. How can a sense of stewardship be expressed? Regardless of your politics, it is people who care that will ultimately prevail.

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