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Guest Article: Oil, coal, and thoughts on a fossil-fuel conscious life

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 3rd, 2010 at 9:23 am

Sarah Gilbert
(Photo: Amy McMullen)

[This article was written by Portland resident Sarah Gilbert, a professional writer who blogs at AOL's Daily Finance, CafeMama.com, and many other places. She's also known as the woman who got a local food chain to open up their drive-thrus to bicycles. When not writing, Gilbert is tending to her three young boys, whom she pedals around on her Xtracycle-equipped Electra Townie with a "One Less Minivan" sticker on it.]

"I no longer feel I must defend my choice to go by bike instead of car; instead, I feel I must hold it high, a banner of hope and, perhaps, victory over these heart-clogging disasters."


I was just a kid when the Exxon Valdez spilled its 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Although I cried at the fate of marine birds, seals and fish left, oil-soaked and strewn across the beach for miles, I remember no sense of personal responsibility for the accident. There were plenty of people to blame: the captain who'd fallen asleep, the company officials who'd overlooked his drinking problem, the general greed of oil companies across the (modern) ages. Nor do I recall a popular sense of self-censure at the time, or during any of the much greater oil disasters throughout the late part of the 20th century.

Deepwater Horizon up in flames.
(Photo: US Coast Guard)

The top ten oil spills of all time occurred in a stretch between 1978 and 1991, and collectively they average more than 100 million gallons each (although the outlier, a purposeful spill in Kuwait as defensive military strategy, was 520 million gallons alone).

The oil spill, err, "leak" in the Gulf of Mexico currently dominating headlines could lodge itself quite securely in the top 10. Scientists are estimating it's already at 10 million gallons, and recent news reports are that BP has no idea how to stop it; this spill could go on for months. Coming as it does with its 11 deaths, unknown but surely mind-blowing environmental damage, and on the heels of a devastating Massey Energy coal mine collapse in West Virginia that killed 25 and exposed some rather shocking allegations about the company's cozy (and illegal and unethical) relationship with regulators, my responsibility in this mess is choking me.

" It took me years -- five of them -- to shake my driving habit and my fancy SUV, but as I did it was always with a growing sense of fear and realization of some of the more destructive impacts of my once-bottomless appetite for oil and other sorts of cheap, combustible energy."

When I moved back to Portland from a decade on the East Coast in 2001, I brought with me a luxury SUV and a comfort level with driving only exacerbated by living, and commuting, in Northern Virginia for a few years. For much of that time I had been regularly spending 10 or 12 hours in a weekend on the wide interstate highways of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, where I was always isolated but never alone. It took me years -- five of them -- to shake my driving habit and my fancy SUV, but as I did it was always with a growing sense of fear and realization of some of the more destructive impacts of my once-bottomless appetite for oil and other sorts of cheap, combustible energy.

My family gave up driving in 2006, and while I felt very keenly the link between the easy-peasy availability of cheap oil -- along with the permissive attitude toward coal mining and coal-burning power plants -- and the looming effects of global warming, it seemed as if people with the same attitude as I were few and painted with an extremist brush. What would it take for others to see how our attitudes toward driving (and ubiquitous plastic, water bottled and trucked around the globe, conventional agriculture, and other obscene uses of petroleum) were more sensible and caring, less radical and unforgivably left-wing?

A family ride to IKEA-6.jpg
(Photo © J. Maus)

Maybe it's this, these twin disasters for whom "tip of the iceberg" is at once too mild and too ironic a descriptor.

I -- the once-years-ago I -- feel personally responsible for the oil spewing out of the base of the ocean at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day, and I will ride my bicycle with my children and ever more firm a conviction that I do not now, or ever, need to have a hand in environmental disasters of the shocking (this) and less obvious (the slow wend of climate change) variety. Yes, riding a bike instead of driving is just a small part of mending the rent we've torn in the planet; but it's an important and integral part, a symbol that is both a central part of one's lifestyle and a lovely, extravagant foundation for a slower life.

I no longer feel I must defend my choice to go by bike instead of car; instead, I feel I must hold it high, a banner of hope and, perhaps, victory over these heart-clogging disasters. For me, riding a bike is about affirming life, of people now and to come, of marine birds, sea mammals, oysters, estuaries, the planet. Will these disasters open more eyes as wide as mine? I wonder.

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Comments
  • Jessica May 3, 2010 at 10:00 am

    It is really awesome to live a carfree lifestyle. For one, it makes more time for bikes!!! Important to also note that even if someone gives up oil-fueled personal transportation, food and other items needed (even bikes) are often trucked in.. so buy local too!

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  • Joe May 3, 2010 at 10:03 am

    RIGHT ON! I thank all that have made the leap.

    peace all,
    Joe

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  • jim May 3, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Like many- you are probably too young to remember the events during Exon spill. There were things going on in Washington that needed the oil spill to be bad to help their cause, therefore that situation did get much worse than it ever really should have.
    I don't even pretend to understand what is going on in Washington right now, this is obamas Katrina....
    I see on the news that the spill will cover every part of the gulf and possibly go up the east coast

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  • ValkRaider May 3, 2010 at 10:29 am

    "I will ride my bicycle with my children and ever more
    firm a conviction that I do not now, or ever, need to have a hand in
    environmental disasters of the shocking (this) and less obvious (the
    slow wend of climate change) variety."

    Your bicycle(s) and accessories contain plastics, made with oil.  Your
    clothes contain synthetics, made with oil.  Your helmets contain foams
    and plastics made with oil. All of those products were shipped to you
    in whole or in part using transportation which consumed oil.

    Your computer you read BikePortland on, and the computers which host
    BikePortland contain plastics which are made with oil, not to mention
    all the other toxic and energy and water intensive products computers
    are made of.

    The food you eat, even if 100% vegan and organic, is produced and
    shipped with methods that consume oil.

    All of these consume energy to be produced and used, and even here in
    the Northwest where we have Hydro and Wind and Geothermal and Solar -
    still 30% of our energy comes from coal/natural gas.

    I could go on and on.

    Your efforts to reduce your impact are admirable, and should be
    applauded!  Your lifestyle should be a model for us all, and everyone
    should reduce consumption across the board.

    But please, don't delude yourselves or others by saying you will
    not now or ever again have a hand in environmental disasters.

    Unless you are completely off the grid and produce everything you
    consume or use by hand and from the earth - then you are still
    consuming petroleum products, wasting energy and water, and causing
    pollution and environmental damage.

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  • Bryan May 3, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Grats, well put, I have watched as the events that you describe have unfolded.I think many of us with open eyes feel the same way. Simpler life is a sustainable life.

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  • Quentin May 3, 2010 at 11:31 am

    I've been car-free for over two years but I don't pretend that it makes any difference. Modern civilization depends almost entirely on oil. The vast majority of Earth's population would not exist if it weren't for the massive food production and transportation network made possible by oil.

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  • joe metal cowboy kurmaskie May 3, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Quentin - But it does make a difference, the world needs to transition to other sources of energy - soft path in nature; solar, wind, geothermal, wave, etc. and shifting from a car centric lifestyle to ped/bike mass transit and modeling this for others I would argue does make a difference. If everyone drove half as much as they do today it would reduce emissions and cause a sea change regarding how our communities lokked and what we prioritized - if everyone stopped using plastic bags, bought local, the list goes on and on, that transition will take place faster and with less violence and pain.. This must happen in tandem with research and development of the new tech - and simplifying our lives, and looking at the over-consumption model very closely because it's not a sustainable one for the long term. We make a difference through our own actions everyday, as well as working to transition away from an oil based society, it makes a difference regarding healthcare, costs, fitness, I'd argue emotional state of mind and more.

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  • Anonymous May 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

    And don't kid your self that solar and wind power have a zero carbon footprint.

    For every unit of power produced by these methods we still have to be able to generate that amount of power by conventional methods to make up for the times when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing or blowing too hard.

    And even while those methods are generating power the power plants that are offsetting that power have to be sitting at the ready to take up the slack at a moments notice. That means coal, oil and gas are keeping the boilers at the ready.

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  • Kathleen McDade May 3, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    We won't totally eliminate oil from our lives, unless we're really willing to go back to an 18th century (or maybe even earlier) lifestyle. But reducing driving does make a difference.

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  • drew May 3, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    I agree @6. We need to move away from this similar to what is said @7, but we will all be long gone before significant change at the national level becomes noticeable. The current administration is trending in the right direction, but it appears that nukes could make the difference.

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  • jim May 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Joe is right- They should have a windmill on top of the oil derecks to pump the oil out. (just jesting)
    It would be nice though to not have the oil rigs not in the ocean but on land drilling at an angle, much like how the Kuwaitis drilled to get oil from out of Iraq yrs back.
    This type of chaos was bound to happen eventually, thats what we get when we mess around. Look up the videos of black sunday 1935 for a similar bad event. people running, driving, trying to find shelter or suffer...

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  • bikesalot May 3, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Comments on the seriousness of our situation from the CEO of a startup alternative energy company:

    "With the onset of peak oil, and a looming possibly-permanent shutdown in the one last great hope of the oil industry: offshore drilling (which will for sure increase the steepness of the downside of the decline curve) we are in a bad place for energy security. Business-As-Usual is not salvageable. If we are diligent and quick, we may yet be able to preserve systemic stability."

    It is likely to take the contributions that ALL of us can make, added together, to get us through this.

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  • michael downes May 3, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I find myself torn between Sarah's fine editorial and Valkraider's (#4) rebuttal. Valk, you are spot on......we are all of us complicit in the plunder of our planet and no amount of sustainably harvested bamboo, wind energy and home-raised chickens is going to change that. On the other hand cynicism and inaction is not an option either. Let us sing the praises of the car-free lifestyle but let us do so with our eyes open

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  • Jeff Mack May 3, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    #12 Has it spot on. So long as we live within the current structure of our society no amount of "going green" or riding our bicycles will do much to change our current trajectory. Most of the time doing such things are far more useful in making a person feel good about themselves. However, as #12 pointed we can't afford to be paralyzed with cynicism and hopelessness so we may as well try and do the best we can.

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  • trail user May 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I'm just happy I can bike through the drive-through at Burgerville.

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  • me May 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    If you REALLY want people to listen, be careful not to be self righteous.

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  • peejay May 3, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Let me get this right: if I cannot eliminate ALL of my need for oil, I should not bother to do ANYTHING to cut my consumption of oil? And since there are petroleum by-products in just about every piece of technology, well, I might as well just gas up the Tahoe and forget about it. That's some adult thinking.

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  • naess May 3, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    pejay #17- i don't get that vibe from any of the comments, and especially not from #4 valkriders comment. though, if one can't see that then they need only read the comment above yours (#16,) and get an extremely simplified version.

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  • jim May 3, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Pee jay-
    How are they going to make more bikepaths without oil?

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  • TREK 3900 May 3, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    ValkRaider hit the nail on the haid.

    Sarah's efforts are outstanding and cannot be diminished by the fact that everything we have is possible because of fossil fuels. The fact that fossil fuels provide literally everything we have should tell us that conserving those fuels and using them wisely is extremely important. When I see nearly 50% of the people driving monster trucks, monster SUV's, RV's and all manner of fuel wasting vehicles, I wonder if they do not understand what they are doing or if they just do not care. I guess I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are just dumb as rocks. Same for people in monster homes and for people with monster TV's, etc, etc, etc, etc.

    Nukes? How you gonna run a tractor with nukes? Gonna need some mighty big batteries. Those fields in Nebraska are fairly large.

    I believe that for places where heating is a concern, that passive solar which involves little more than lots of south facing glass, should be encouraged. I think building codes should require it in residential construction. Also those codes should require insulated shutters, shades, etc to reduce heat loss at night. With passive solar heating, plus windows in which fans can be located for ventilation, many homes could reduce their heating/cooling energy without an increase in carbon footprint. How many homes do you see where the south side has few windows, or where, on a cold sunny day the blinds are closed!!!!!

    Americans are in love with waste of resources of all kinds. Take a pee, flush 1.5 gallons of water, dry your hands on a paper towel and throw it away. Mother nature is going to give Americans the MUTHA of all ass-whoopin's one day. It's going to be UGLY.

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  • TREK 3900 May 3, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Sarah, you need to seriously consider the consequences of an accident with a small child in that handlebar seat. I can see life long damage done fairly easily. I'm not an expert, but I DO NOT like the looks of it.

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  • hanmade May 3, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    "Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to change themselves."
    It starts with us people, everyday, taking small steps. Teach your children well, they must follow us in life. They learn by example.

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  • TREK 3900 May 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Having said all of that, and understanding that running out of oil will cause immense pain to the world, I do not support any government mandates that would cripple the American economy more than other economies.

    The market WILL slow the use of oil. As oil gets harder to find and as demand rises, the price will skyrocket. THAT will cause conservation.

    Mandated fuel efficiency for all passenger vehicles in the US? I'm all for it.

    Cap and trade? From what I have heard of it, I am not for it. Especially if it will do more harm to our economy than to others.

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  • Red Five May 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Please...I recently got back from Europe and people over there are just as fat as Americans (if not fatter) not to mention their love of the car seems to be on par with ours. Despite high fuel costs, I spent considerable time sitting in traffic jams in Rome, and then again in Paris, and yet again in Madrid. This "Americans are to blame for everything" garbage is just that...GARBAGE. Unless the whole world gets on board, punishing the United States alone won't do jack. Let's stop putting the Euros on a pedestal as if they are model citizens of the world.

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  • TREK 3900 May 3, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Sarah originally asked: "Will these disasters open more eyes as wide as mine? I wonder."

    The answer is "not likely". If the spill goes on for several months, it will certainly get some attention, but in order to cause people to change behavior requires something extreme. Like $10/gallon gas. THAT will cause some behavior change.

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  • VelvetAckbar May 3, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    #20:

    "Nukes? How you gonna run a tractor with nukes? Gonna need some mighty big batteries. Those fields in Nebraska are fairly large."

    You don't. Think it through. Challenge your assumptions.

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  • Michael M. May 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Like most of us, I was just a kid when the Exxon Valdez spilled its 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

    Sorry, but I had a really hard time getting beyond your first sentence. Clearly, I am way too old to be reading this blog, though not too old too ride a bike. I didn't own a car when Exxon Valdez happened, I don't own one now. I haven't driven regularly since leaving Hillsboro in 1980 to go to college. Car-free for almost 30 years, but I don't think it has made a bit of difference to the planet.

    I would respectfully suggest that if you really want to make a difference, for yourself and your kids, you look into the value of community, of helping each one of us get around, and more importantly have places we want to go, where we are valued and sustained and can return in-kind, and places we can go home to, and the care we need to maintain them. Too many people here in Portland do not. If you really want to avoid isolation, try public transit -- you can actually talk to people. Try walking -- you'll notice far more about our environment (built & otherwise) than you will whizzing by on a bicycle, and you'll still be able to talk to people. Biking is great, too, but it is hardly the be-all-and-end-all.

    Having been made to feel thoroughly over-the-hill, I just have to point out that in my day being progressive meant standing up to inequality and injustice, and lending a hand where a hand was needed. Now it seem to be about eschewing luxury SUVs in favor of bicycles, and feeling good about it. Frankly, I don't think that will make a bit of difference for the planet either -- or for the future of humanity.

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  • Shane May 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Simply stated... stop driving to use oil wisely.
    Stated better, this Streetsblog post:
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2010/05/03/commentary-keep-drilling-stop-driving-use-oil-wisely/

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  • TREK 3900 May 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Root cause of all the environmental problems in the world: Makin' babies is WAY too much fun.

    Well, that and the fact that only a VERY FEW babies grow up to have functioning brains.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 3, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Michael M.,

    sorry that line made you feel old. I should have caught that initially and edited it out. I have done so now because it's not important to the essay and i don't want to alienate anyone with it.

    As for the rest of your comment... I'll just add that I had two nice conversations with people while riding home today.

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  • Chris Shaffer May 3, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Like most of us, I was just a kid when the Exxon Valdez spilled its 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

    Really? It was only 21 years ago. Are most of us under 40?

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  • chelsea May 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Great article Ms. Gilbert! Thank you for caring and for making a difference, despite a lot of nay-saying.

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  • jim May 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I would say that if an accident happened and that baby was hurt (or the kids on the back)it would be gross negligence on the part of the mother.
    Safety is the parents resposnibility, chaos will catch up to you just like it did with that oil well out in the gulf. sooner or later something will happen. 2 kids on a bike is just way too precarious.

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  • jim May 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

    i meant to say 3 kids

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  • Aaronf May 4, 2010 at 10:55 am

    "Yes, riding a bike instead of driving is just a small part of mending the rent we've torn in the planet; but it's an important and integral part, a symbol that is both a central part of one's lifestyle and a lovely, extravagant foundation for a slower life."

    Cycling is a lot sexier than a composting toilet, but does it have a more core, positive, integral, symbolic impact? Beats me.

    I really dig Michael M's comment. Focusing on a single issue and declaring it a "core" issue is sort of limiting.

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  • Ian May 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It was a very sad experience for me to explain to my 2 kids about this oil spill. To watch the reality of it sink in by degrees in their minds was heartbreaking.

    We are all complicit in these disasters. We all benefit from the cheap, fossilized energy we use. Every time we buy a new gadget that plugs into the wall, we use coal powered energy. Every time we "find ourselves" by hopping on a plane to a new destination we use oil. We support these corporations whose energy products make these neat experiences possible.

    Consumption is the problem. Consuming less is part of the answer. "Sustainability" is a joke unless overall consumption is reduced.

    -Ian

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