Plastic bottles are all “recyclable,” but do you know what percent of the plastic bottles we use are actually made from recycled materials? If you said zero, you’re right. Or at least you would have been right until last year, when Coca Cola opened the first plant that makes bottles out of other recycled bottles. (Most of the 23% of the plastic bottles we recycle get shipped off to China, where they’re made into packing materials and other junk.) Why’d Coke build this plant? Well, companies undertake “green” initiatives for one of three reasons: (1) it makes them money, (2) they’re compelled to do so by the law, or (3) for the positive press. Obviously the positive PR was the motivating factor for Coke. And this gets right into some tricky economics: the plant cost a lot of money, and they decided it was worth it because so many of us are paying attention to environmental issues these days that the good will they get from the plant is worth more than, say, spending the same money on CGI polar bear ads.
Here’s where I’m going with this: you, sitting there in your office killing time surfing the web, are making the world a better place just by semi-sort-of-caring about the health of the planet. As your caring gets swept up in the zeitgeist it fuels civilization’s gradual shift toward sustainable energy. Wind farms, research into solar technology, and plug-in hybrids are all being built at a financial loss, and it’s because we care. Our opinions filter up to the Coke board room, who realize that by not building this plant they’re opening themselves up to Pepsi building it, and it filters up into government, which pushes for those offshore wind farms and creates programs to increase public awareness about environmental issues. (Which makes it sort of a neat self-feeding loop. (Except that the feedback is still pretty weak, because it’s got the strong forces of profit-motive (and the ease of greenwashing) working against it.))
And this is where the one month-old today Gulf oil spill comes in. The oil has been spreading ferociously, and while the clumps found in the Keys are not from the spill, the oil has been washing up something disgusting in Louisiana, and has already entered the Gulf Stream, which could bring it to our beaches in a matter of days. So, what good are globs of oil washing up on SoBe? Well, that shit hits home. It, like, focuses the attention. It feeds the mental feedback loop.
Nothing significant will change right away — the nutjobs pushing to stop offshore drilling don’t have a chance in the short run. But as the public considers the thousands of offshore oil rigs in the Gulf, they’re going to gradually realize that we need to accelerate the shift from carbon fuels. And that realization will filter down to the car companies who have been slow to produce fuel-efficient cars (with all due respect to your fucking Yukon Hybrid), to consumers who buy strawberries and oranges from California when the same stuff is grown 50 miles from their door, and to government, which may even figure out a way to pass the gasoline tax.
It turns out that the planet is pretty good about fixing the messes we make when we give it a chance — the last time there was a spill in the Gulf, everything was more or less back to normal in two years. And an environmental catastrophe like this spill just might help us realize we’ve hit rock bottom with oil, and put us on the road to somewhere better.