It is a simple question, but one that bears some reflection. Think for a moment on the long and varied history of our search for knowledge and power, and reflect on how many times in human history we have been confronted with the ability to do something, albeit something carrying a terrible level of risk, something even terrible in and of itself, and not done it.
There are examples of such restraint. For now. We have never used a neutron bomb or a hydrogen bomb in anger. Similarly, for all our fear of weapons of mass destruction, we have not yet unleashed a biological weapon with an impact so terrible as the plagues that nature so readily casts upon us. But, of course, we have used atomic weapons. In the name of freedom, we have caused thousands to die in a moment. There is no evidence that I am aware of that there is a single technology capable of weaponisation that has not, or is not at least in the process of, being weaponised. The Nobel prizes are a testament in perpetuity to a man who inadvertently unleashed a terrible weapon of war upon the world. Indeed, the most deadly of weapons have been created with the most benign intentions – Richard Gatling believed that his machine gun would make war unthinkable by virtue of the carnage implied.
It is similarly difficult to find an example of a resource, of some material of value that mankind as a whole has baulked from harvesting even when the collection or use entails the most terrible suffering and destruction. The diamond trade is widely recognised as a driver of corruption and warfare. Every country in the world carries the scars of mining its subterranean bounty, for gold, copper, aluminium, coltan, etc. etc. Few indeed are the habitats so pristine that given the choice to access wealth through destruction humanity has chosen to stand back. Coal and oil have been similarly exploited, and in the Niger delta, in Colombia, in the Gulf of Mexico and Azerbaijan and the North Sea the damage lesser or greater that this exploration entails is ready to be seen.
Like bulls stampeding through a Spanish festival, in our constant desperation to evade the now and raise ourselves into the future, we may not only crush and gore all that lies around us, but also fail to find a real escape for ourselves. Humanity’s willingness to chase progress at any cost has achieved such incredible things, but it is not clear that bringing humanity any closer to a lasting happiness is one of them.
Meanwhile, like the people of Easter Island, our rapacious appetite for resources has achieved a scale upon which we are in peril of out-consuming our ability to supply ourselves. There is no question that we are depleting the Earth’s oil supplies – only of how many decades it will take. Deepwater Horizon reminds us that some accidents must always remain normal; that the pursuit of financial gain is not a strong guarantee against catastrophic failure; that our chasing after progress carries the most profound risks of damage to ourselves and our environment. And while it seem appealing to hold this up as a turning point, to postulate that this time, unlike all the other times, we will really learn our lesson, that we will really start to behave in a different way, the chances seem slim.
President Obama’s moratorium on deepwater drilling was struck down in a conservative courtroom – a disproportionate response. To ban such activity was an unreasonable restriction on the freedom to enrich oneself, an attack on jobs, corporatism and the American dream. Oil companies are queuing up to drill in and near the Arctic wildlife reserves, and though they have been held back, the sense of resolve is anything but clear. In China, the Yellow River runs black with oil.
Confronted with the inevitability that oil, not to mention phosphate, aluminium and many other ‘vital’ materials shall in due course run out, the question becomes this. Are we ready to hold back? Are we ready to halt the gold rush? Can we watch the white stag pass and bless its going, or must we forever pursue?
It has become ubiquitous to recognise the Earth’s resources as something that are owned. Perhaps you believe that they can be bought and sold as commodities. In Venezuela, in Norway, and in various countries in various ways, these resources are seen as the birthright of some subset of humanity ‘fortunate’ enough to live in the same political unit as the latest find. Some countries, Britain notable among them, have made their own good fortune by annexing into their political blocks new areas of natural wealth. Think about it and tell me honestly, does it really seem obvious and right that the British people should benefit from the spoils of oil around the Falklands to the exclusion of all others? Would it be different if it were the Chinese people benefitting from gold in the mountains of Tibet? What about the Canadians of Alberta, feathering their beds with tar sands?
The reclamation of natural resources by relatively local peoples from the marauding corporate tendrils of the rich is not to be taken lightly – this can be a profoundly important step. But if this means that not to exploit a resource is to fail the poor, is this a sustainable philosophy? The belief that all that is found must be used is killing our planet, and will kill many of us before the century is out.
The Macondo spill is a reminder that there are choices, that it is up to us to choose whether we drill further and deeper, or whether the time has come for a fundamental shift in the way that we as a species deal with nature’s bounty. There are choices upon us already – will we use tar sands oil? Is a deepwater drilling moratorium appropriate? Should Alaska’s oil be sacrosanct? What agricultural benefit can justify destroying the remaining wildernesses of our planet? We can stand up and say that enough is enough, that humanity does not always have to climb every mountain just because it is there.
We can make it a central tenet of the way we live that many things are best not done. And perhaps, at the same time, we need to recognise that nobody should acquire exclusive right to riches to the exclusion of all others simply by virtue of owning the right bit of ground. Canada is unlikely to feel fairly treated in abandoning the exploitation of tar sands while we drill everywhere we strike oil. Indonesia may rightly ask why it should preserve its forest at the behest of a Europe sorely bereft of trees.
It’s time to step back and stop. It’s time to err on the side of ecological caution. Anything we leave now is, either way, a gift to our children – and yet it is often those most bullishly insistent on leaving the largest gifts to their children who least understand this.
And let us remember the many, many thousands who have been killed because one man thought his peers would refuse to use the thing he created – and because his peers, then and now, have so badly let him down.