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Keep it in the ground: Where will our lust for fossil fuels take us?

In August 2020, Mauritius made headlines for the one thousand tonnes of oil leaked into the Indian Ocean. Back in June 2020, it was Russia making headlines after more than 20,000 tonnes of diesel spilled into Siberia’s Arctic region. The environmental and ecological damages of oil spills are inconceivable, even for the more “moderate” ones like the relatively small-scale Mauritian disaster. Yet, experts predict Mauritius will suffer enduring ecological consequences, not because of the amount of oil spilled, but because of the ship’s location within protected marine ecosystems. No matter how big or how small the spill, we can’t seem to escape the devastating side-effects of the world’s lust for oil. It’s almost like global dependence on fossil fuels is only driving us further down the rabbit hole of impending environmental disaster. And no, this isn’t an exaggeration. It’s genuinely about time we fixed up.

The legacy of oil spills

We’ve all seen what the aftermath of an oil spill looks like. In the wake of such a catastrophe, we’re immediately saturated with images of crystal-clear waters turned black lagoons and birds completely coated in black slime. But what’s behind these images, aside from the intended shock value targeted towards largely apathetic audiences?

Birds have become the staple of the post-spill scenery, but their fate is far more tragic than a million pictures combined. When their wings become plastered with the viscous substance, flying towards safety is no longer an option. Left defenseless, birds either die of hypothermia since oil destroys their insulation factor — the natural ability to keep warm — or die of poisoning as they ingest toxic amounts of fuel while frantically attempting to flap their wings. An estimated 250,000 birds were killed in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, considered the world’s worst spill in terms of environmental damage.

Marine mammals too seldom escape the consequences of a spill. In dolphins and whales, oil obstructs their blowholes which, in case it wasn’t clear, is a death sentence. In sea otters and seals, like their feathered counterparts, their insulation factor becomes null, resulting in death by hypothermia. Some marine mammals may be lucky enough to outrun any direct damage from the oil spill but, even then, they’re not immune. Their food bank can easily become toxic. Ingesting fish poisoned by oil, in most cases, leads to death. Approximately 4,500 marine mammals died in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Research suggests that only after almost four decades did the marine ecosystem in the Arctic fully recover from the 1989 tragedy.

Very few of us seem to grasp the seriousness of a damaged ecosystem. Ecosystems are made up of natural communities of organisms all interacting with each other and their physical environment. The moment one part of an ecosystem — no matter how small — is altered, all of it suffers the consequences. This is because every organism is dependant on the next. Think of it like the domino effect. This interdependence has the power to devastate entire ecosystems, and failing ecosystems are a threat to the planet’s survival. On the bright side, ecosystems are resilient and almost always find a way to recover.

However, human-caused ecosystem damage is continuous and perpetual, leaving little to no time for the environment to rebuild itself as it has for billions of years. The destruction of marine ecosystems through oil spills is merely one fraction of the ecological emergency we’re currently facing. We haven’t even touched on how fossil fuels, through anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases, are leading us into the climate emergency that threatens life on Earth as we know it. This is why climate activism is anything but dramatic.

Oil spills are just a fraction of the problem

Whether through transporting ludicrous quantities of the substance across the world or through being a fated part of drilling (small leaks spurt out of pipelines on the regular), oil spills are merely one inevitable consequence of our lust for oil. We’ve yet to address what happens when we burn our precious oil. But we know this, right? We know the continuous burning of oil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which leads to the unrelenting overheating of the planet. Still, we have yet to see substantive action being taken. Scientists have agreed the world cannot bear the consequences of burning more than one-third of oil reserves if we want to mitigate the worst sequels of climate change. 

Oil in itself is also just a fraction of the problem. When we talk about fossil fuels, we’re also talking about coal and natural gas. Yes, oil is one of the worst architects of climate change. But before oil, there’s coal. The world is as addicted to coal as it is to oil. Almost 40% of the entire planet’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. Just like we need to campaign to keep oil in the ground, we cannot forget coal. To avoid the impending climate catastrophe, a staggering 80% of coal needs to remain where it belongs: in the ground. For natural gas, extracting and transporting it releases methane — 28 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Here’s a thought: our reliance on fossil fuels is quite literally fuelling our very destruction.

Going green is no longer an option

The planet cannot keep up with the incessant destruction of its ecosystems that stems from our addiction to fossil fuels. The ramifications far outweigh the instant gratification of oil, coal and gas “making our lives easier” and, of course, of energy corporations lining their pockets. The alternatives are there, but they necessitate commitment and investment. What bigger investment than guaranteeing our survival on this planet?

Today’s youth will bear the burden of their predecessors’ negligence. In our lifetime, we’ll very well witness the mass extinction of countless species, the destruction of entire communities — predominantly in the Global South — as a result of extreme weather events, the menace of food insecurity — for which the Global South will also pay the highest price —, the growing threats to our health caused by pollution and the surge in diseases linked to climate change, and every other pitfall we have yet to find out about. Many aspects of society necessitate a radical overhaul to prevent environmental doom, but the clock is ticking, and our lust for fossil fuels is something we can no longer afford.

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