Ah, the nightmare of the Bakken. The flaming towers and boiling mud. Conex box living and heavy machinery. The white pickups. The lingering smell of gas and diesel and oil. Less than an hour from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Where buffalo graze placidly on the flood plains and curves of the Little Missouri River. What happens when the gas and oil dry up? Should the roughnecks and oil executives look slightly west, angle drill bits towards the park? Shred our national heritage in the name of…progress?
In one year, we have begun the unraveling of systems and institutions designed to protect the wilderness, and for what? Revenue. Energy. Do we need to examine the mindset of Secretary Zinke, a once-principled man, who has slowly, inextricably been pulled into the archaic groupthink of the neo-robber barons (at DFACs around the world, Fox News is always on in the background–don’t think for a minute that this just audible onslaught doesn’t affect the brain of a Navy SEAL already primed to see the world as “us and them.”) Or Rick Perry, a clearly bought sycophant of the oil, gas, and coal lobbies? Perhaps, but even if their dalliances with cronyism pull them to earth, they will simply be replaced–there are always more willing to sell themselves and their duty for “revenue” (read: lucrative consulting jobs post-service, investments in super PACs, and flat-out bribes).
The fossil fuel lobby will never agree to give up its subsidies. Coal is dead, and yet the American taxpayer is on the hook to continue pumping CO2 into its corpse. Oil companies have gone on the offensive with charm campaigns designed to make the public think somehow they are cutting edge–inventing green technology while making backroom deals to drill our beaches and mountains and deserts. A dinosaur company will do whatever is possible to continue a winning deal–change is deadly. It took general outcry and leaders willing to stand up to the practices of robber barons in the Gilded Age; companies did not themselves suddenly decide that pollution was bad, that deforestation was dangerous, that unsafe working conditions were dehumanizing. Neo-robber barons will follow suit–they will insist on degrading the human experience until the last precious drop of oil is squeezed from the land. They will torture the land, rend the soil, slashing through the protections like a hot knife through butter–this administration will let them.
So we are told that renewable energy is too reliant on subsidies. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of facts, but also leaves out externalities. How much does our involvement in the Middle East cost us per year? Our support of dictatorships who keep the pumps flowing? The bill to our health? The bill to our environment? The bill to our advancement as a species? Most of the greatest theoretical physicists and science-fiction authors (often one and the same) make no mention of a fossil-fuel burning humanity reaching the stars. Most dystopian novelists, however, clog their landscapes’ arteries with coal and carbon, a diminished people scratching out existence on a diminished planet.
After year one of Trump, I have forced myself to become an optimist. The dying throws of a broken society may have conjured this orange hobgoblin, but he is obviously unhealthy, and will either die or be tossed out like so much refuse. Cities and states are quickly becoming the new leaders of our nation, and progressivism is staging a comeback. I want to believe the United States will recover and lead again on the global stage, but maybe this moment of shirking will also beget new leaders. The limits of capitalism have been laid bare as we assign monetary value to all, hopefully birthing a new generation of economic thinkers who will re-examine our obsessions, wants, and needs.
We’ve done it before. Salmon spawn again in their ancient beds. Condors soar over California and the Grand Canyon. Coral reefs have begun to rebound due to concerted effort. Hell, even the Cuyahoga River, which once caught fire, now supports more than 60 species of fish. Hopefully, these are not simply Band-Aids over the sucking chest wound–something we can pat ourselves on the back for while continuing to bleed out.
To truly heal, we have to look at environmental disasters like the Bakken. And yes, it will be when we finally hoover the last drop from the earth. We have to decide what National Monuments and Parks and Forests actually mean to us. We have to continue to fight those who would defile our wild places for money and power and seats on oil boards or private jets. We have to take back Roosevelt from the Zinke’s of the world and remember his words:
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”