Oil spill hits home

For those of us from Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is not really a spill. It's a gusher.

It is a deep wound in the minds, hearts and, yes, the pockets of anyone whose life has been enriched by the beauties of the Gulf Coast. The wildlife, the natural waterways, even the alligators: All those things we love are under dire threat.

My home town is Sulphur, La., a relatively small place with a powerhouse football team and a heavily oil-dependent economy. My father, uncles, grandfather and some cousins have all put in time working the oil fields of rural Louisiana, the rigs along the coast or the refineries that dot our cities.

It's fully understandable, then, that weaning ourselves from oil dependence has never been a popular proposition in Louisiana. In fact, environmental awareness in the state has been embarrassingly bad. When I was in elementary school, teachers taught us "Reduce, reuse, recycle," but there were no recycling facilities in town. I once encouraged a woman in Louisiana to buy a hybrid vehicle, and she stared blankly at me as though I'd suggested she should eat cardboard for dinner.

But the BP oil calamity is changing that. The people of Louisiana and oil-dependent communities throughout the country are waking up to the realities of this dependence.

Every time I call my dad, he is angrier about the damage being done to his home. Meanwhile, his barber is angry because he thinks the media are making too much of the oil spill and hurting Louisiana's reputation.

As a community, our journey has only begun. We've all known for years that we need to reduce our oil dependence, and we've known how much damage an oil spill could do, but we've hidden behind a deceptively comforting mantra: It won't happen to me.

Well, now it has happened to me. It's happened to all of us, and we can't afford to make excuses any longer. We must take every step we can — small or large — to reduce our oil consumption and reduce our dependence on oil, both foreign and local.

Those of us who grew up in the gulf should now lead the way because we're seeing firsthand the toll this oil gusher is taking on our land and sea.

Growing up, my family often went fishing in the gulf. We would sometimes tie our boat to a leg of an oil rig to keep us from drifting off. At the end of the day, a pod of dolphins sometimes joined us on our way back to shore. They'd swim alongside us, eager for a snack. Now, like everything else that makes its home in the gulf, they are threatened by this ongoing, manmade disaster.

Many gulf oil rigs are just a few miles from shore. If any of these rigs sprung a leak, it wouldn't take long for the land to be destroyed.

By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon rig is 50 miles from shore and on the eastern side of the state. The oil has been drifting away from Sulphur and toward Florida instead, and for that my family feels dubiously lucky. It's like feeling grateful when a hurricane turns the other way or when the flood waters rise in someone else's neighborhood.

We can usually call it a natural disaster, say prayers, and collect canned food to donate to those whose homes were destroyed.

But a broken oil rig pumping crude into the ocean is the result of human hands, not nature's fury, and no reasonable nature lover could be happy to see the oil wash up on their neighbor's shores. I know what my family would have lost if a different rig had gone down, and my heart aches for the losses of the communities closest to the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Now it's time to turn that ache into action. We live in a consumer culture where, theoretically, buyers have all the power. It's time to test that theory by switching to sustainable products and using our dollars to demand and support the development of better petroleum alternatives.

When I heard the news about the oil spill, I swore to quit using oil immediately and permanently, but I was in the middle of my drive home from work and quickly realized how difficult it would be to cut petroleum from my life. Difficult, however, doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

That realization prompted me to commit to reducing my petrol use one day and one purchase at a time. True to my generation, I'm doing it on a blog. I'll be making efforts to drive less, consume less energy, use fewer plastics and learn about alternative fuels.

Every purchase I make is a minuscule step, but I hope by putting my journey in the public view I can help inform others and encourage them to create change.

Mary Richert, a Louisiana native, lives in Maryland and earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. She blogs at notanactivist.com and contributes regularly to The Nervous Breakdown. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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