While the first day of the fifth month offered me only minor inconvenience on the board, significant "Mayday" calls were issued elsewhere around the world. The historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made landfall today, and riots erupted in Greece over proposed austerity measures. On the surface these two events may appear worlds apart, but they have much in common. For both, the impact is sudden and severe. For both, external forces wield much of the power. And for both, the sudden trauma lands upon systems already compromised by years of erosion.
For those familiar with the Exxon Valdez, or other more recent spills, the sudden and severe impact of crude oil on coastal ecology is easy to recognize. In Greece, the rapid onset of the crisis has been exacerbated by European Union officials and in particular German politicians keenly aware of a key upcoming regional election. Governments worldwide have taken on an unofficial policy of 'extend and pretend' that can essentially be described as the 'Emperor's new fiscal policy.' While this approach has proven effective for short term politics, the inevitable crash, when it comes, is all the worse as a result. Greece, it can be said, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Along with the EU and Germany, Greece must also answer to the IMF, which has a long history of imposing austerity measures and policy reforms on loan recipients which result in the further loss of sovereignty. Austerity measures inevitably result in spending cuts on social programs, health care and education. All of these disproportionally hurt the poor. Policy reforms result in opening up markets to global competition and the ensuing race to the bottom for wages, worker's rights, and environmental policy. Resilience and sustainability, particularly in the areas of food production, are systematically dismantled leaving nations all the more vulnerable to price volatility caused by distant forces. This is called a downward spiral.
The coastal wetlands and estuaries of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are also at the mercy of outside forces. Of course the Obama administration wants to avoid another Katrina, and is acting quickly and decisively. Although Washington D.C. now wields considerable power over the response to the crisis, let us ask what were the external forces that caused it? Why was a rig that cost 350 million dollars to build 10 years ago (estimated to cost twice that to build a replacement today) drilling a hole 18,000 feet deep while floating atop 5,000 feet of water? With a full operating cost of about 1 million dollars per day, aren't there other, cheaper ways to get oil?
No, the light, sweet, easy to access oil on the planet is nearly gone, and oil companies are now forced to take greater risks at greater expense for lesser returns. Deepwater drilling and tar sands will produce oil, but only at greater and greater expense and higher and higher environmental costs. Many mysteries can be solved by following the money. And when you follow the money backward from the Deepwater Horizon it leads to your wallet and my wallet. We are the greatest external force that has influenced recent events in the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, these twin tragedies fall upon systems whose abilities to offer resilience have been compromised by years and years of mismanagement. Greek tales of corruption, concealing debt, and largesse have reached epic status. They are well documented in the press. The cumulative effect, however, has been to strip the mediterranean nation of its ability to respond robustly. It's fiscal immune system was so weak by the time the final virus struck, there was no alternative to swallowing a bitter bailout pill.
Similarly, gulf coast ecosystems have suffered from decades of fertilizer runoff, over-harvesting and misguided water engineering projects. The result is a compromised immune response to additional external impacts. In this case the system is ecological, not economic. How appropriate that the words economy and ecology share a root in the Greek oikos. It reminds us that everything really is connected, and that in order to understand our world we might consider paying more attention to the connections.
In the case of oil and Greece, May 1st, 2010, simply represents the tipping point, or straw that broke the camel's back. These Romulus and Remus of newsbytes flashing across television screens both suck at the teet of a she wolf called 'Modernity,' who preys on the unquestioned belief of infinite growth without consequences. It would be nice to think that these twin tragedies share the maternity ward with no others, but the fact is that we stand at the brink of the great birthing of crises. While governments have been effective for a year and a half of extending and pretending, the duct tape is losing its grip. We can see daily the myths of modernity crumbling around us, and even if we are cursed like Cassandra to foretell the future but not be heard by others, it remains our duty and obligation to prepare and protect our communities from powerful external forces beyond our control.
Even though my wax has worn thin, I am still able to manage some fun rides on the day. Catching a beautiful right to finish the session, I can see the wave standing up before me. I carve left, crouch a bit, center myself on the board, and ride the whitewater all the way to the beach. While external forces may be unimaginably powerful, but recognizing their approach, bracing ourselves, and rebalancing, we can weather each storm and ride a sea of change.