Paul Andersen: Fair game |

Paul Andersen: Fair game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

The oil and gas industry is using the current spike in gasoline prices to push for accelerated drilling on sensitive public lands. The Earth is our resource treasury, say the oil and gas guys, and we must take from it what we need, when we need it.

Never mind that the amounts of developable energy underlying pristine wilderness, coastal regions, and the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge would be gulped down in record time. Never mind that it would be years before those resources would even enter the marketplace.

What the energy sector hopes to reveal is that Americans are convenient conservationists. When there is plenty for all, and when foreign suppliers are generous, then it’s easy to conserve our public lands. But when we face limits that impact jobs and easy mobility, we will betray our love of pristine landscapes and plunder them. Most Americans claim to appreciate nature. We love our national parks almost to death. We have the wisdom to set aside special places for our children’s children. But the oil and gas guys assume that this sentiment is shallow and fleeting. Unfortunately, they might be right.

Americans love nature because it benefits us, often as a motorized playground or as a scenic backdrop to other activities. Nature is nice to look at, but we don’t go much deeper than that. Nature remains the “other” of which we have little or no personal sense of belonging.

It’s the same with the environment, which we view as an externality that suits our needs. We think the environment is adjustable and controllable, and all for our benefit. We reduce our view of the environment to air and water, the stuff we breathe and drink. We rarely consider the soil or the oceans, except through a vague connection that provides us food. As for natural habitat and biodiversity, that’s just about animals, a peripheral concern.

We attempt to manipulate the environment the same way we manipulate the thermostats in our homes – adjusting the living earth for our optimal comfort. We simplify the environment and compartmentalize nature without understanding our holistic connection to both, without recognizing that our origins are there.

Ours is an ethics of convenience. At times of plenty, we are generous. At times of peace, we are loving. At times of surplus, we set aside resources. But beware the times of shortages and war. That’s when we forego all ethics and revert to tooth and claw in a Jekyll and Hyde transformation that confirms Hobbes’s theory.

Thomas Hobbes, author of “The Leviathan,” described primitive man as a warring creature looking out only for himself. Hobbes famously said that life for primitive man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” What Hobbes prescribed for human salvation was a “Leviathan,” an over-awing power to conform man into a socialized creature.

In Hobbes’ day, the Leviathan was the King of England. In our day, the Leviathan is Mother Nature, i.e. the environment. Global climate change is the first of many over-awing powers that will force man to change or else severely limit our future as a species.

Fear is a weak motive for honoring natural laws, but in lieu of a nature ethic, fear may be the only motive we have. Fear, not ethics, is forcing us to recognize the natural world as our support system. But as soon as a limit is revealed, as it is now with oil, even fear holds no sway. We are easily coerced into risking our natural support systems for a cheap energy fix.

Today, the oil and gas industry, with help from the Bush Administration, aspires to Leviathan powers. It denounces wildlands conservation as a luxury we cannot afford. It dons a white hat and promotes cheap gasoline as a birthright akin to personal freedom. It says that drill rigs are beautiful, that nature is a minor concern, that climate change is something we can and will live with.

But this is not wisdom; it is desperation. This is not an ethic; it is raw pragmatism. As a species, we remain mired in a Hobbesian world, satisfying our individual appetites and pushing nature deeper into the realm of “other.” Or at least that’s what the oil and gas guys hope.