Issue May 11, 2010

Swill, baby, swill

As oil spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, oozing a greasy sheen on the Redneck Riviera not seen since Uncle Kracker appeared on “MTV Spring Break 2000,” it’s important to look on the bright side: As horrible as the devastation is, it’s bound to open some eyes.

Although we are perpetually dripping in poison — from the lethal air we breathe to the toxic food we consume to the noxious spectacle of Courtney Cox on “Cougar Town” — it often takes a major catastrophe to spur people into action.

And we are living in a bang-up moment for major catastrophes. Between the coal-ash disaster in Tennessee, the West Virginia mine explosion, the wholesale destruction of communities by mountaintop removal mining, and now the disaster that’s unfolding in the gulf, there’s enough energy-related tragedy to give the generation that grew up watching Captain Planet something to get pissed off enough to Tweet about.

But is it enough to make us actually curb our energy consumption? Here’s the kind of creatures we are: There currently is a dead zone in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas caused not by oil spills, fertilizer runoff or a Hollywood Botox leak. It is a giant gyre of trash. We’re not only conspicuous consumers, we’re too ornery to properly dispose of the plastic we conspicuously consume.

Maybe footage of volunteers Q-tipping hatchlings and Heimliching dolphins will turn the tide. Those who care about the environment enough to change their habits can think back to a pivotal event or series of events that sent them over the edge into personal action and/or obsessive-compulsive eco-Nazism.

There was a series of events in the mid-’80s that made me put down my McDLT and cry like litter-hater Iron Eyes Cody. In 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released toxic gas that killed 10,000 people and sickened 500,000. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine spread radioactive fallout across the globe and gave cancer to as many as 600,000. In 1987, a garbage barge chartered by the mob sailed from New York to Belize and back, unable to unload its cargo for six months.

And in 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood sucked down a couple dozen vodka shots and let the Exxon Valdez smash into a reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. (Amazingly, Valdez does not even rank among the top 30 largest oil spills, but its devastation to wildlife earns the distinction as worst spill-related disaster.) Despite those ’80s wake-up calls, we only grew more gluttonous, building McMansions, driving everywhere and gobbling fossil fuels like a tanker captain on an Absolut bender. Swill, baby, swill.

Even though it was more comedy than tragedy, the garbage-barge story was the one that broke my brain. I expected government and corporations to fail, but the mob? If the mob can’t dispose of garbage, what has this world come to? That’s the moment I became a tree hugger — not to save the planet, but just to feel a little bit less like a piece of shit floating in a planetary toilet.

Social scientists and theologians can debate humanity’s progress, but I believe we’ve been slowly going backward since the Stone Age. I cite as proof the conveyances used by one modern Stone-Age family, the Flintstones. The Flintstones powered their vehicles with their own feet, mined without serious accidents, and never left a dead zone in any ocean. (They also were more tolerant, promising a “gay old time.”)

Fred Flintstone worked at the quarry all day, attended Water Buffalo meetings at night, invented ballet-bowling, operated his car by putting one foot in front of the other, and still had energy to knock rocks with his smokin’ hot ginger wife, Wilma. (Is it any wonder he could eat brontosaurus ribs large enough to tump over the family car?) And humanity has been going downhill ever since.

But now we have a new wake-up call. We have a chance to hold corporate and government feet to the fire. Equally as important, we have a chance to admit our gluttony isn’t sustainable and reduce our own consumption. Walk or bike to work, start that victory garden, buy less plastic crap, use less water, turn off the A/C and go naked. Think of it this way: Every time we take the bus or carpool, a future baby cormorant doesn’t need its wings cotton-swabbed.

Just in time for the Flag Day gift-giving season: “Summary of My Discontent — The Book.” Buy it today at Carmichael’s Bookstore or jimwelp.blogspot.com.