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Are We All to Blame for the Oil Spill?

As a surfer, I've long been opposed to offshore drilling, but it wasn't until recently that I started feeling responsible for it. On my way home from a surf the other day, I found myself in a spot of traffic at the approach of Downtown Los Angeles, listening to an NPR report about violence in Iraq sandwiched between stories about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one on the failed attempt to cover it with a dome and one on BP's economic responsibility for the whole thing. As the voices bandied about the extent to which the oil company should be held financially accountable for the spill, it dawned on me that in the last 15 minutes, I'd traveled roughly two miles. There I sat, staring into the tailpipe of the Dodge in front of me, surrounded by hundreds of other idling motorists. It was then that the guilt set in.

When tragedies occur, we're eager to assign blame, as though there's some grand equation wherein the scale of an environmental disaster is equaled by the ineptitude or outright villainy of its perpetrator. But that can make for a tricky calculus. It would seem that in this case the blood is pretty obviously on the hands of BP; there wouldn't be an oil spill if they hadn't jammed a massive drill into the sea floor. Oil companies have the most power—which they've weilded for decades to maintain the status quo, fight regulation, and prevent real change from taking place—so they ought to bear the most responsibility, right?

Maybe. But to what extent are we, collectively, to blame? We are, after all, the ones who buy the oil.

In the absence of a tax that brings the price of a gallon of gas closer to its true environmental and social cost, most Americans will keep refueling, regardless of the stories we hear on the radio about oil spills or oil wars. I hate the idea that we can be both powerless and culpable (or even complicit), but in this situation that is precisely the case.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user dsearls

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