I have a special t-shirt. Actually I have quite a few special t-shirts but this one is particularly appropriate. It has a picture of a Greenpeace ship sailing in an oil slick and the slogan reads ‘Save the Gulf’.
The t-shirt is actually 19 years old and the Gulf it refers to is the Persian Gulf. This was the campaign shirt we used when I led the Greenpeace expedition to assess the environmental consequences of the 1991 Gulf war.
Since 1991 I have witnessed a number of oil spills, some have been tankers running into rocks and spilling there toxic cargo, others have been pipeline leaks in the Russian Arctic where the temperatures are so cold that the oil is like black butter beneath the ice. Another spill resulting from acts of war was on the coast of Lebanon in 2006 where Israeli planes bombed oil storage tanks during the brief but fierce fighting between Lebanon and Israel in 2006.
Now here in the Gulf of Mexico, I find myself once again bearing witness to the damage to wildlife and coastal communities caused by oil. The stuff has run like an oily thread through my life for the last 30 years. But it doesn’t matter how many times I have picked up oiled birds or witnessed dying animals as they desperately try to escape the incoming deadly black tide, or smelled the acrid sulphurous air, the shock and sorrow does not fade – neither does the anger.
Oil has been all pervasive through industrial society though the last century. Due to its availability, versatility and ease of transport it has, literally, oiled the engine of economic development. And there have been benefits – to doubt this is stupid. But to discount the price that we have paid – and continue to pay – is not only stupid it is suicidal. The price has been paid in human lives in wars fought over control of oil supplies. The price has been paid by the abuses of the human rights of communities around the world living in and around oil installations. The price has been paid by city dwellers choked by the smog generated by thousands of internal combustion engines. And the price is being paid as the climate become increasingly destabilised because of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the use of oil, coal and gas.
We have been digging up and pumping the carbon that was produced by millions of years of sunlight and hitherto locked safely away beneath the earth’s crust, and dumping it into the atmosphere at a rate too fast for it to cope. The result is increasing the greenhouse effect that causes global warming that in turn destabilises the climate. We now live in a world in the grip of climate change and the signs are there for all to see – disappearing Arctic ice; floods killing hundreds of thousands; drought destroying crops; diseases spreading; forest fires burning.
But change is happening; the Age of Oil, the end of the hydrocarbon age, is here as around the world communities are taking action. Globally, renewable energy is growing at an extra-ordinary rate, and there is increasing awareness that we can’t go on like this. But we need more climate leaders, more people willing to change. And we need to tell our politicians that the direction we need to move is away from dirty dangerous energy sources to cleaner ones. And this begins by stopping new oil developments in the Deep Ocean and fragile areas such as the Arctic. No one is saying the taps can be switched off tomorrow, but shifting direction requires definite limits. As Sheikh Yamani famously said ‘the Stone Age did not end through lack of stones; the oil age will not end through lack of oil’. Indeed it will end soon; it must do as our very survival depends on the sun going down on this dirty, dangerous and globally destructive industry.
I will keep my old t-shirt - it reminds of a different time when I was younger. I now have other t-shirts that speak to the future, the Solar Generation. Yes to Wind. Yes to our bright future.