By Richard Reep
Some say it took Mrs. O’Leary’s cow to make Chicago the city of great architecture that it is today: after the fire of 1871 that destroyed many of its buildings, leading citizens recognized the critical importance of their built environment. Today, we have a city that boasts some of the world’s best architecture. If BP’s oil disaster is a new millennium cow starting another conflagration, the nation may ironically benefit from seeing the ominous oil slick spreading across the gulf, spelling the end to our dependence on oil as the dominant energy source for the nation.
Cries of “drill baby drill” are suddenly silent as the horror of rusty streaks spreads from MC252, and Florida’s governor Charlie Crist has already viewed the oil slick twice – aware that the tourism industry, already on its knees, will suffer yet another blow amid unemployment, the credit freeze, and state depopulation. The massive disaster looming in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be a giant, ugly metaphor for some choices that America will make in the near future. If we are going to stay dependent upon oil as our energy source of choice, we better grit our teeth, clean it up, and hope for a technological fix to reduce the risk of this happening again.
Instead of reducing our dependence upon foreign oil, this disaster is causing many in Florida to question whether we should depend on oil at all, foreign or domestic. Ironically, in a state that has consistently banned offshore drilling to prevent such as disaster, Florida’s beaches are likely to suffer from environmental damage anyway. 4,000 or so oil rigs exist in the Gulf of Mexico making this event likely to occur again in the future, and as the engineers experiment with one repair after another it is evident that we are a long way from making these rigs risk-free.
Over in Florida, the dismay over this event is palpable, and since nothing can be done about it, there is only speculation about what direction to head in the future. Despite the “sunshine state” moniker, the oil industry’s grip on the state is so strong that solar energy is losing market share rather than gaining as an energy resource. The legislature, starved for money to balance the budget, had to kill a rebate program that subsidized building owners when they add solar energy systems to their property. Florida, despite its abundance of renewable energy potential, has yet to see policy that diversifies the energy needs of the state, and sources like solar energy require extraordinarily heavy subsidies to be palpable to most owners.
While the recession is pushing most prices downward, energy costs are rising across the country, whether fossil fuels or notFlorida is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, making renewable energy resources someone else’s profit center, judging from California, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota’s contribution to the top ten cities using renewable energy. Florida, with vast agricultural lands beset by freezes that destroyed much of the cold-sensitive citrus crop this year, has yet to consider energy crops like sugar cane, sorghum, switchgrass, or other biofuels.
So while Florida sits and watches the oil slick move closer to its shores, some big questions deserve to be asked, and answered. Individuals without the means are generally conserving energy by driving less, biking more, and slowing their lives down to match the pace of their income. All of this is natural conservation of energy is occurring without nannies and big brother shaking a code book at people and may, in the long run, do more to reduce energy consumption than anything else.
It will take a fundamental shift in thinking to really abandon oil, foreign or otherwise, in Florida or elsewhere. It will take recognition of the incredible abundance of other forms of energy that exist and a passion to seek out ways to use this energy effectively for our needs. This will be only successful with a combination of grass roots and top-down thinking, and perhaps the disaster in the Gulf of will have a legacy similar to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, after which came the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Act, and a galvanizing of the fledgling environmental movement.
Sustainability is about preserving the future generation’s ability to choose its own destiny. With this criterion, we should move forward with a pluralist approach to finding energy sources, and consciously step towards them. We won’t abandon oil tomorrow, or the next day, but we can begin to say goodbye to atrocious wastes of nature like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico right now, and we can begin to say hello to a transformation of our lifestyle to embrace different forms of energy for different needs. If this disaster is truly Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, then future generations must truly benefit from the event in order for it to have meaning.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.