Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

BP, Boycotts, and the American Lifestyle

So out on Facebook there’s a “group” to boycott BP gasoline. I don’t normally join groups because I find them ineffective and a way of feeling like you’re doing something when all you’re doing is clicking on a button and then never hearing anything about the group again. But this was a good cause and I’m pretty pissed off, like a lot of people are, about this oil spill and the feeling of utter helplessness. But then there ensued a discussion on one of my friends’ page about how BP stations are all franchised and so what you’re really doing when you boycott BP is to hurt the small station owner rather than BP itself.

Of course this is how it works. This is how corporations work these days, cushioning themselves from any actual economic impact by making sure that a boycott will hurt ordinary people before it can even touch them. The same goes for recessions. But the fact is that a BP boycott is definitely in order. But why stop at BP? They are the ones doing the offshore drilling at this particular site. But every other oil company is doing offshore drilling somewhere and right now they’re all breathing a sigh of relief that it’s BP and not them that set off this “leak.”

The fact is that for almost 30 years now we’ve had various and sundry “oil crises” from shortages to spills to endless wars. We’ve been “discussing” for years our dependence on oil and our politicians assure us that the problem is just our dependence on “foreign oil.” If we only drill in the wilds of Alaska or off our own shores, everything will be fine.

Can we once and for all say that we have to reduce our dependence on oil – all oil? Can the debate move beyond just a few environmentalists and hippies and now involve everyone in the United States? The oil is going to move out of the gulf and go up the Atlantic and eventually into our rivers. All of America is going to be affected by this. This is not just a gulf tragedy. Frankly, it is not even just an American tragedy, but it will affect us first and probably most powerfully.

Do we care yet?

I’ll say it again. Boycott all oil companies to the extent that you can. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We don’t have to wait for car manufacturers to get on board or for the government to take the lead. But we do have to make some changes that Americans have been reluctant to make.

I have a few suggestions.

If you live in a city with public transportation, use it as much as possible.

I live in Minneapolis and it seems to me that every single person must be in their car every minute of the day. Frankly, I don’t even understand why some people here have houses, let alone big houses, except to have some place to store all their crap. They should just move into their cars and keep the things that matter most to them. I have lived here for 15 years and I have not had a car the entire time I’ve lived here. That may be a little confusing to some people – I have not had a car for 15 years. It’s a bit of a hassle to do grocery shopping and run errands, but I manage, as do thousands of other city dwellers who take their kids to day care or school, go to work, and like me, do their errands on the city bus, I just ran into an older woman the other day, probably in her 60s or so, who has never had a car and made sure to live within the city proper where she could live along bus routes. Just today, I took two buses to go to a grocery store about a mile and a half away. I brought home a canvas bag full of groceries, a gallon of milk, and two other plastic bags full of groceries. And lived to tell the tale.

Really, can’t you carpool? To work. To the grocery store. To the zoo. Wherever.

Do you know how many cars I count every day that only have one occupant in them? If you don’t have reliable public transport or you live in a small town, can’t you find someone to ride with? Maybe then you wouldn’t be on the phone or texting so much while you drive, which will make you a safer driver, so it’ll kill two birds with one stone. And in a world in which everyone is always lamenting a lack of community and personalism, in which we are always on our computers or cell phones in isolation from one another, imagine going grocery shopping with a neighbor. It’s almost unfathomable, isn’t it? Coordinating schedules with someone else instead of jumping in the car whenever you want to and making a quick run for one or two things, talking to your neighbors, having to make small talk with someone (which might turn into “big talk” after a little while). Having to listen to *gasp* someone else’s music!

Can we go back to buying cars that are fuel efficient, rather than big gas guzzling SUVs, Hummers, and PT Cruisers?

We went for a long time without caring about how many mpgs a vehicle got, as long as it was cool. Even when gas reached almost $5.00 a gallon, as long as we could afford it, it didn’t matter. Even when we were (and are) in a war ostensibly over oil (does anyone really believe that Iraq and Afghanistan are still about terrorism, if they ever were?) How short-sighted could we have been? Is it popular to talk about this again, and maybe to maintain our vision on this matter, even in good economic times?

Several ordinary people have tinkered with cars and made automobiles that run on ordinary cooking grease.

Are you mechanically inclined? Don’t wait for the car manufacturers to give us an environmentally sound car. Beat them to the punch. A few years ago a bunch of college students powered a Volkswagen bus on vegetable oil. Charlie Rose recently ran a re-run of an interview with Neil Young and he had been doing the same thing with a few cars that he had. If you like working on cars, why not REALLY work on them, do something really useful?

Some will say that boycotting oil will hurt people’s jobs and livelihoods. And it will. But as with oil consumption, maybe American consumption on everything could be scaled back. Does anyone talk about sacrifice anymore for the greater good?

I know it’s an apostasy to say that, especially since we were told after 9/11 that the most patriotic thing we could do was to shop. And especially with so many people losing their jobs or unable to get a job right now. I’m not being glib, believe me. I have lived in so many places that were economically depressed, especially throughout Illinois in the 1980s. But you know, if we cut back on worthless junk we don’t really need, then we won’t need to work 60 hour weeks to be able to afford the junk and maybe we won’t need two incomes either. If you don’t have two or more cars, you don’t need as much money.

The thing about American lifestyles is that it takes money to maintain and then we have to work too much, too long, etc. I have cut back my lifestyle significantly and yet I still have more than enough stuff. I still live like a relatively rich person compared to people in a lot of countries. Not as well as others, and I’m very very poor by American standards. But I have everything I need most of the time. (I do occasionally still have to do “fundraising” and borrowing to get through lean times, so I do know about poverty and am not insensitive to it.)

I’m not saying to not buy things that really, truly give you pleasure or that you need to have. In other words, I’m not saying do without. But look around your home. How much stuff would you really miss if you got rid of it? What about your kids—do they make use of everything you buy them? Would it really kill them for you to say no to some things? I’m just saying, ask yourself before you buy something, if you really really want or need it, or if you’re just responding to advertising-created need. (I’m not even going to get into the environmental impact of all those disposable, here-today gone-tomorrow products that we all thought we just had to have.)

I went by a nail salon yesterday and saw all those fake fingernails and thought about the environmental impact of those being thrown away and replaced every two weeks or month or however long they last. This was one store in one city. Think of all the shops throughout the country and imagine the impact. Can we do without fancy fake fingernails? That’s just one example.

This oil spill could potentially affect not only the gulf, but all of us for many years to come. Remember Bhopal and Union Carbide? I do and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The spill is not as immediate and as pressing a danger to many as the Bhopal industrial accident. But then again, this crisis threatens to turn us into a “third world*” country, to affect our water, our land and our crops. It’s going to affect our wildlife, and it will affect our very health. The decision to cut back on our lifestyles might be made for us. The time has come, in fact, is long past, to talk about these things. But we must. And we all have to be part of the conversation—not just politicians and industrial “leaders.” This affects us all and the time has come to be part of the solution once and for all.

*I actually dislike using that term, because it has a very specific meaning dating back to the cold war. It was about non-aligned countries who were neither allied with the Soviet Union nor the United States, the prime example being India. It has come to mean underdeveloped or even poor and exploited nations. I’m using it here as a shortcut because most people have a tacit understanding when you say of the phrase“third world nation.”

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