The Common Good

How Much Are We Willing to Sacrifice to Have Cheap Gasoline?

Sometimes I think we forget whose country this is. Woody Guthrie said it a long time ago: "This land is your land, this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters." But since Woody wrote those lines, we've turned our government, our foreign policy, and our natural resources over to corporations and the politicians who work for them.

If this statement seems hyperbolic, check out the rhetoric of BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose British company does business under the flag of the Marshall Islands. The statement that the worst environmental disaster in our history will have only a "very, very modest" impact speaks for itself. But unfortunately anger at the arrogance and disingenuousness of these men will not reverse the environmental tragedy in which we are all participants.

The state that is most vulnerable to the floating miles and miles of three-dimensional oil sludge and chemical dispersants is my home state, Louisiana, which was once an Edenic paradise but long ago became anybody's punch. The plantation oligarchy kept blacks and poor whites uneducated and poor and pitted against one another. Huey Long made a present of the state to Frank Costello. Then the petrochemical companies came to town and used the state in any fashion they wished.

What many people do not understand is that extractive industries have cut 10,000 miles of canals through Louisiana's wetlands. These canals allow salt water to enter freshwater swamp and marsh areas and systemically destroy the roots of the grasses and trees that literally hold the land together. The consequence is that the southern rim of Louisiana is like a gigantic ragged sponge. The oil surge that is occurring at this moment along Louisiana's coast will kill thousands of square miles of living marsh.

My father was a lifetime natural gas engineer. I was a landman for Sinclair Oil and a pipeliner and occasional laborer in what is called the oil patch. The oil-and-gas grunts on the ground are among the best and bravest people I ever knew. But the guys up top are cut out of different cloth.

As I write these words, the Gulf Stream waters that Woody sung about are being turned into chemical soup. Maybe it's time to take a personal inventory and decide if this is our land or not, and if it is, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to have cheap gasoline?

James Lee Burke is the author of 29 novels and two collections of short stories, including Jesus Out To Sea. He lives in Missoula, Montana and New Iberia, Louisiana. This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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