Five Legitimate Ways to Respond to the Oil Spill

There are over 750,000 members of the "Boycott BP" group on Facebook.This is, frankly, a travesty. Of course, you can't put too much stock in how many members there are in a facebook group, but still... The level of awareness of the BP Oil Spill in the gulf is tremendous and heartening; and I hope it changes our attitudes and lifestyles and alters the way we think about the cost of oil - but boycotting BP is a useless waste of time. Sharon Begley at Newsweek hits at the crux of the issue quite well:
It’s understandable that consumers are furious and frustrated by the gulf catastrophe and want to punish those responsible... [but] BP and the 32 other operators of deepwater wells in the gulf are there not because they find it technologically interesting to see how deep they can drill... They’re drilling because of America’s—and the world’s—insatiable lust for oil.

The U.S. consumes 800 million gallons of petroleum per week, according to the Energy Information Agency. The only way to make this the last oil spill in the gulf is to make oil obsolete. 

...Just as buying green products is better for our eco-esteem than it is an effective way to save the planet, so consumer boycotts of the latest oil company to run afoul of public opinion are emotionally satisfying but ultimately futile.
A boycott does nothing but punish the actual owner of whichever gas station you bypass (to ostensibly go purchase your gas from some other gas station). We need to recognize that the oil spill is our fault because we demand oil and we demand it cheap. Reducing our demand for oil is the only way, short of advocating for a government solution (do this too!), to reduce drilling for oil - to reduce the myriad environmental impacts oil production wreaks on our planet.

But the question is always, well what do I do about it then? Here are some simple suggestions.

The best thing about this list? Almost everything will not only reduce your personal demand for oil but will often save you money as well or have other positive benefits. Sure, they are inconvenient - but next time you see a picture of a oil-soaked pelican, be reminded that inconvenience is necessary to manifest any kind of legitimate change. Here is the list:

1. Change the way you travel. You can't carpool every time you go somewhere. But you probably do go to the same place by usually the same route, quite often - work. Do any of your co-workers live nearby you? Find out, and put together a carpool. If you shared your ride to and from work with one other person half the time, you would reduce the demand for oil that your daily commute produces by fully 25%. Imagine if you did it more frequently or with mor co-workers? You would also save a ton of money over time on gas and car maintenance. Don't know how to carpool? Check out Rideshare Directory, Craigslist Rideshare, Zebigo, or just talk to some of your co-workers.

Here's an alarming statistic: "25% of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40% are within two miles of the home, and 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Yet more than 82% of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle" (League of American Bicyclists). Do you really need to get in the car for a one or two-mile trip? Consider walking, public transit, or bicycle. Not only will this reduce your gas demand, but all of these options will help make you healthier as well.

If you're in the market for a new car, really think about what you need. Do you need an SUV, really? Or would a smaller car work? Would a hybrid or even an electric car work? At least give it some thought. And if you're traveling/vacationing soon? Consider the cost/benefit of taking the train instead of flying - time, cost, and environmental impact should all factor in.

2. Buy local, sustainable food. "Food miles" isn't as popular a term as it once was among environmentalists - I think a lot of people realized that factory farming methods and pesticide use were bigger culprits in terms of pollution than the distance food traveled to get to you. But since we're talking about the oil spill here, I'll mention it. Your food may have traveled across the country or world to reach your local supermarket. Buying local reduces the distance your food travels and thus reduces the gas necessary to transport  your food to you.

Most cities have plenty of local farmer's markets (especially in Seattle, and especially now that it's summer). And while some people think that buying at the farmer's market is more expensive, that's largely not true - especially when you consider the true cost of cheap supermarket food (remember those pelicans?). The farmer's market is also a great place to get high-quality meat, if you're into that - but see #5 for a meat-centric recommendation.

Another fantastic option is the CSA Share. Basically a CSA is signing up to get a box of fresh produce from a local farm. They either deliver the box to a "depot" close to where you live or directly to your home! This has a host of benefits besides the "local" aspect - the food is fresh and tasty, usually organic, in-season, and for some CSAs you don't get to choose what goes in the box - meaning you get to learn how to cook a bunch of new things as well.

3. Shop at the thrift store. Many fabrics, including polyester, are made directly from petroleum. But whether it's cotton or polyester, almost all clothing has to be processed with textile machinery, and because almost all major clothing manufacturers have their clothes made overseas, they then have to be shipped here in airplanes and then trucked to your local outlet.

By purchasing second-hand clothing, you avoid all of this (and, of course, save a ton of money). If you are concerned with quality or safety risks associated with thrift shopping, or are worried about style, then focus your shopping efforts at Crossroads, Red Light, Buffalo Exchange, or other high-end "consignment" stores. You can often get name-brand, high-end clothes for a fraction of the price they were new - and usually in next-to-new conditions.

You can buy almost anything used, and in good condition too. Think about the factories that make almost everything that you use - your furniture, for example. They all use energy (usually oil) to power their machinery. Taking one more item off the production line via not purchasing it new reduces your oil demand by that much.

4. Ditch Plastic. Plastic is made directly from petroleum. It is either in or wrapped around almost every product that we buy - and contrary to popular belief, much of it is not recyclable (though even if it was, most people don't care - 80% of plastic bottles go unrecycled. Do you recycle your water bottle every single time?). The most obvious culprits are plastic water bottles and plastic bags.

Plastic water bottles are incredibly convenient - that's why they're so ubiquitous. But spend $15.00 on a reusable metal water bottle and you will never need another plastic water bottle! And once you get used to toting it around, it becomes as convenient as a plastic bottle would be. Water bottling companies have also convinced us that their water is more "pure" or "clean" - this is simply untrue. If taste is the issue, then getting a filter for your tap water is another cheap, more-sustainable solution.

Luckily for the environment, many grocery stores are starting to charge for plastic grocery bags. These are also created with petroleum and sit in landfills literally forever. They can be recycled, but most people don't do it correctly. Get a reusable "green" bag, use paper, or don't get a bag at all! If what you've bought can be carried in your hands, do you really need a bag? If you forget to bring your "green" bag to the grocery store (it happens, but hanging them up near your front door, or keeping some in your car at all times, can help), remember that you don't need to throw away your paper or plastic bags after using them. They can be re-purposed for hundreds of household tasks!

Following Suggestion #2 can help reduce your plastic usage as well - bring a "green" bag to the farmer's market and pick up your groceries that way - no plastic required! The more you buy direct - non-processed food, used clothing and goods, bartering for items at swap meets and garage sales, etc. - the less packaging you consume (and then throw away), meaning the less plastic you create demand for.

5. Reduce your consumption of meat. No matter what else you as an individual do, if you stopped eating factory-farmed meat it would literally be the most helpful thing you could do as an individual for the Earth. The amount of water, grain, and energy that goes into feeding cows, pigs, and chickens is astronomical, and is an incredibly inefficient use of natural resources.

Speaking of oil specifically, however:
Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels...
An organic, local, vegetarian diet requires no pesticides, no long-distance transport, no energy to power massive slaughterhouses and processing facilities, etc. Also, because growing vegetables and grains to serve directly to humans is vastly more efficient in terms of caloric output than growing it to feed to animals to be fed to humans, it reduces costs that meat and vegetable production share, such as irrigation, harvesting, and powering farm tools such as tractors and combines.

If you are going to eat meat (it isn't an all-or-nothing proposition - reducing one's meat consumption is still good!) get it organic from the farmer's market. Organic, local meat usually isn't pumped full of hormones, the feed isn't swathed in pesticides, some farms feed their animals in more sustainable, "natural" ways, and it isn't shipped from Iowa or further.


There is no point being disgusted by what's going on in the gulf right now if you aren't going to do anything about it. In a couple months this disaster will be out of sight and out of mind - so what can we do now, while the devastation is close at hand, to work toward preventing its happening again?

Do what you can. It is very possible for a young single person on a VERY limited budget to do all of these things and be healthy and happy without too much inconvenience (I currently practice them all as much as possible). Not all of these suggestions can apply to everyone, but some of them can apply to everyone.

And then, if you are so inclined, recognize that the only way we'll really break free from an oil-based economy is through government/corporate action - write your congressmen/women and/or senators and let them know you support a comprehensive green energy bill. Get involved with a local organization that supports green jobs or green development or offers rebates to folks that install green energy technology in their homes or that educates people about environmental issues. Donate time or money to an environmental organization. Petition your city to incorporate strict environmental standards in its development goals, etc. There is so much you can do that can actually have an effect - don't waste your time being angry or boycotting one company. Do your individual part by changing your habits, and join the movement!

Questions or comments?
Any other simple suggestions for reducing oil consumption / demand?
Am I totally misinformed and some of these things are B.S.?
Let me know in the comments below (remember, you don't need an account to leave a comment, and I really appreciate them!)

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