May 17, 2010
Posted: 05:26 PM ET
Commentary by Philippe Cousteau, special to LKL Blog
The sun was blazing down as I walked up to the door of the little shop we had come to visit on Dauphin Island, just south of Mobile, Alabama.
This was my last day visiting the Gulf region after the devastating oil spill of only a few weeks earlier. The trip had started out earlier in the week with a briefing by scientists and field staff of the Ocean Conservancy, one of the leading ocean conservation organizations in the United States, who have been on the ground since day one of the disaster. That briefing had also included a helicopter trip to survey the damage from above to get an overall picture of the scale of the disaster.
Joined by members of the Ocean Conservancy, my team and I had driven three hours from New Orleans along the coast. This trip was not only to survey the environmental damage, but also to spend time with the individuals who live along the coast and whose lives are being forever changed by this catastrophe.
All I have heard about on the news for the last few weeks was how much the environment was being affected; and while that is a very real crisis, I was also curious about the human face of this tragedy. While there has been some talk of how the oil spill is affecting people, it has concentrated on folks like shrimpers and fisherman who are being directly affected. But what of the mom and pop grocery stores, souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and other small businesses who rely on the tourism that usually thrives at this time of year?
A bell rang on the old wooden door as I opened it and walked into the shop on Dauphin Island. I was immediately greeted by Bogart, a young male Shitzu, whose enthusiastic reception belied the seriousness of the situation. After a scratch under the chin, I turned my attention to the owner who stood patiently with an outstretched hand and warm smile. She was expecting us and it wasn’t long before we were deep in a discussion about the spill and its effect on the region. “This is the busiest time of year for people who live along the coast. Normally this place would be packed and I wouldn’t even have time to speak with you,” she said with noticeable worry in her voice. “We are down at least 50% from last year because people are cancelling their trips even though the oil hasn’t reached us yet. My husband died in January and left me with this business and I don’t know if it will survive the season.”
The face of this tragedy was unfolding before me and the true cost of our addiction to oil was painfully visible in the eyes of this woman. Then something really interesting happened. I asked her what she thought about the oil industry and her look changed to one of anger. “I feel betrayed,” she told me. “I supported drilling because I honestly thought that the oil companies would be prepared for a disaster…that they could take care of it.” Then from behind the counter her daughter-in-law responded, “She hates it when I say this, but I think the problem is that we need to consume less.”
Sure enough the owner immediately conveyed her displeasure with that notion, lamenting this new idea of using less and living in smaller houses as ridiculous. Here was the battle for the soul of America, laid out in front of me.
A battle of generations, the older, who holds on to the old American dream of more and bigger even though the consequences of that dream were threatening to ruin her life, and the younger who was questioning whether or not we should be living a different way and angry that industry and especially the government wasn’t doing more to break our addiction to dirty energy.
Earlier that day I had met with Casi Callaway, the executive director of the Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental hero who is on the front lines of this disaster and who has spent decades fighting for the environment in Alabama. “We have a battle on our hands,” she reminded me. But it wasn’t until later that afternoon, standing in that little shop surrounded by t-shirts and mugs and assorted odds and ends that I realized just how serious this battle is.
This is a battle not just about ‘Drill Baby Drill,’ but about a bigger decision we face. Will we continue to follow the false dream of fast food, big cars, obnoxious mansions, and dirty energy that is causing obesity, cancer, asthma, and so many other ills to our society? Or will we choose a different path, one that recognizes, in the words of John Audubon, “That the world is not given by one’s fathers but borrowed from one’s children.”
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