Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Sense of Home and a Sense of Place

Louisiana leaders have not only been voicing the anger and frustration of their constituents over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but late last week they began to mourn the place they call home.

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D–Napoleonville), who represents much of the coastal area directly affected by the oil spill, broke down in tears while delivering his remarks at the May 27 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

“Everything that I know and love is at risk,” he said.

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, desperately called on BP and the government to do more “multi-tasking,” not only on plugging the gushing underwater oil pipe but by attending to the spill as it enters the wetlands and threatens wildlife and people’s livelihoods.

He added that residents and officials in Plaquemines Parish did not sit idly by when the brown pelicans’ (the state bird) nesting grounds were threatened by the spill. They used their own boats to lay protective booms around a bird sanctuary on Cat Island.

Meanwhile, James Carville, political consultant and New Orleans resident, told CNN that what people feared most was the government abandoning them just as it had after Hurricane Katrina. There was even public discussion of deserting the city instead of rebuilding it.

So as this catastrophe in the Gulf continues, it is fitting and necessary for the American people to reflect on how we consistently expose our country’s lands, seas, wildlife, ecosystems—and ourselves and our progeny—to unwarranted risk and environmental danger to suit our own selfish ends.

Deepwater oil drilling isn’t bad enough, we are now set to drill in the Arctic and we have been squeezing oil out of oil shales. We blow the tops off mountains for coal and dam up or divert river waters for desert cities. These dazzling engineering feats benefit our comfort and convenience as we cavalierly contend that we have a right to use the resources of our earth—regardless of how we leave it.

However, these actions reveal not only our fundamental disconnection from Nature but our lack of a sense of place.

In my own state of Michigan, Asian carp threaten our precious Great Lakes. The carp came from China in the 1970s to be used by Gulf area catfish farmers to eat up algae in their ponds. The four-foot-long, 70-pound fish with a voracious appetite and fast breeding time has slowly escaped from the wild and traveled up the Mississippi River to the Illinois River and through the man-made Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. If it reaches Lake Michigan, the whole region will forever be changed and the $4.5 billion Michigan fishing industry ruined.

The Great Lakes mean a lot to Michiganders. Besides giving us our unique shape with 3,288 miles of coastline, they provide an agricultural diversity (over 150 crops second only to California), small quirky towns, bountiful forests, sweet-smelling wood-burning fireplaces, plaid jackets and a vibrant year-round outdoor culture. We go “Up North” to cottages and cabins to enjoy swimming, hunting, fishing and boating. For Detroiters, hot summer evenings means cooling off by the river to watch the boats pass by. So for Michiganders, losing our lakes would be akin to losing a part of ourselves.

That’s what I imagine Louisianans must be feeling now with this second environmental disaster in less than five years—and I feel very badly for them.

In April, just one week before the oil spill, I visited New Orleans for the first time to attend the American Planning Association’s annual conference and fell in love with the city, its people and its culture.

I met survivors of Katrina who evacuated to places far away and then returned to the city to rebuild their homes and their lives. I met city officials and engineers who were responsible for the recovery effort and worked day and night to bring back the city and make it safe from flooding. I heard amazing stories of people who just started clearing the debris—and then inspired their neighbors to follow suit. I met musicians who used their talents to re-generate people’s spirits for music was all the people had left after Katrina. I also met young people who chose to stay in New Orleans after volunteering time there in the clean-up. The city captured their hearts. Of course, I discovered the delicious local cuisine like oysters (raw, baked and chargrilled), jambalaya, beans and rice, muffeletta, po boy sandwiches and beignets. I walked around the jaunty French Quarter, took an awesome airboat ride on the bayou and indulged myself in the free jazz festival on the RiverWalk. There’s absolutely nothing like New Orleans!

As this oil spill spreads in size on Gulf waters and reaches the Louisiana shore and wetlands, its devastation is unmatched and unfathomable compared to the destruction of Katrina, as terrible as that was.

However, our response to this catastrophe, begs the question: Do we have the capacity to understand the environmental damage being done?

Sadly, I’m not sure we do—but we must try.

Look at photos of the oil spill’s victims and allow yourself to be sickened by the sights.

Recognize that 300,000 fishermen are facing a precarious future and that 30 percent of U.S. seafood production, a $2.4 billion enterprise, comes from the Gulf region. Where will these people go? What will they do? What will seafood cost with these decreasing supplies?

Hear the response of Louisianans like Mary Richert who grew up in Sulphur, LA, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. As blasphemous as it sounds, she is now committed to reducing her use of oil.

Listen to Gisele Perez, a native New Orleanian who proudly defends and celebrates her city for its vibrant culture, lively music, wonderful cuisine, deeply rooted religious tradition, language, customs and values that place family and community above anything else.

Read Kathy Riodan’s essay. Proud daughter of a oil roughneck, she acknowledges the need for change from “our dependence on oil, our dependence on foreign oil, our responsibility for the resource, our responsibility for the environment, our regulation of the industry, our stewardship of the planet.”

Today, preserving the environment is really the only relevant issue before us. Given the damage we have done, we are called to change our lives completely to respond to the unspoken and unrecognized reality that the industrial age is over because the costs of obtaining cheap resources to run it are too great.

This oil spill is a tragedy of ecology and culture that will surely mark this second decade of the 21st century. It also represents the consequences of our belief that we have no limits to growth and that consumerism is good. This is a hangover of 20th century industrialization that led us not only to build one of the world’s great civilizations but now to oversee its very dismantling.

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