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Sweet Shoutout from Gwyneth

7/31/2010


I've been bouncing around the country for the past month--from Custer, Wisconsin to Miami, Florida – for speaking events, traveling thousands of fuel-hungry miles while taking a bit of a blog hiatus. During this time, Power Trip got a generous endorsement from Gwyneth Paltrow on her blog GOOP.com, which has some 300,000 subscribers. “This fascinating book should now be a must read,” she wrote. “Not only to understand the ways in which fossil fuel consumption has shaped us, but what we can now do to lessen (or even end) our dependence on this dwindling resource.” Below is an adapted excerpt of Power Trip that Paltrow published on GOOP, where I describe my journey to the heart of America’s energy crisis in the context of the BP oil spill.

 

It’s hard to see a silver lining emerging from the BP oil spill. Brown scum now covers a marine ecosystem the size of Wyoming, killing vast swaths of coral reefs and threatening hundreds of bird, fish, marine mammal and plant species. Thousands of shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen are out of work. Tourism along the Gulf is devastated.

There’s no question that we’re facing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. But this crisis also offers a powerful call to action, and I believe it's seeding the early stages of a nationwide awakening. Americans are coming to terms with both the challenges of our oil dependence, and the opportunities that lie ahead--for change, renewal, and innovation.

Over the past two months, the spill has revealed the extreme but hidden risks of our oil usage. We have been quick to blame the greed and incompetence of BP and government regulators, but most of us have been slow to recognize our own roles, as consumers, in the catastrophe. The plain truth is that if we weren’t demanding so much oil, the industry wouldn’t be going to such extreme lengths to get it.

Even today, few of us understand how large our appetite for oil truly is. In a single day, Americans consume nearly 800 million gallons of oil—about 20 times more than the total estimated volume of crude that has spilled into the Gulf so far. Each of us, on average, consumes about 30 percent more oil everyday than the average European, and roughly 40 percent more oil per day than the average citizen of Japan.

America's hunger for oil, like our appetite for fast food, has spawned a kind of obesity epidemic—but one that we can’t see in visible pounds of flesh. Oil is the thread from which our modern lives dangle, but it is an invisible thread -- a substance harvested mostly in foreign lands and pumped through underwater pipelines. Once burned, it disperses invisibly into the atmosphere.

The very fact that we can’t see the consequences of our oil consumption has created a fantasy of sorts—that we can live energy-lavish lifestyles without experiencing any negative effects. The Gulf spill, if only temporarily, has punctured the myth: Images of oil floating like a funeral shroud over thousands of square miles of ocean, coating the corpses of egrets and dolphins, gives an emotional texture to a substance that remains a mystery to most of us.

Even though we rarely think about it, energy is as much a part of our modern survival as air, food, and water. It does more than power our iPhones and laptops, it grows our crops, fights our wars, makes our plastics and medicines, warms our homes, moves our products, airplanes and vehicles, and animates our cities.

I spent the last decade writing about energy and environmental policy—much of that time criticizing politicians and industry leaders for keeping us hooked on dirty fuels and failing to promote cleaner alternatives.

Then one morning I realized that I was as much to blame as everyone else. I took a spontaneous tour of my office, counting the things in my midst that were, in one way or another, tied to fossil fuels.

Since nearly all plastics, polymers, inks, paints, fertilizers, and pesticides are made from oil-derived chemicals, and all products are delivered to market by trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, there was virtually nothing in my office—my body included—that wasn’t there because of fossil fuels.

There I sat at a desk made of Formica (a plastic), wearing a sweatshirt made of fleece (a polymer) over yoga pants made from Lycra (ditto), sipping coffee shipped from Zimbabwe, eating an apple trucked from Washington, surrounded by walls covered with oil-derived paints, jotting notes in petroleum-derived ink, typing words on a petrochemical keyboard into a computer powered by coal plants. Even the supposedly guilt-free whole-grain cereal I had for breakfast and the veggie burger I ate for lunch came from crops treated with oil-derived fertilizers.

My purse yielded another trove of specimens: capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol made from acetaminophen (a substance, like many commercial pain relievers, that is refined from oil); glossy magazines and a packet of photographs printed with petrochemicals; mascara, lip balm, eyeliner, and perfume that, like most cosmetics, have key components derived from oil.

I began to see that this thing I’d thought was a nasty word—oil—was actually the source of many creature comforts I use and love, and many survival tools I need.

But if fossil fuels are a part of everything we do, how do we go about removing them from the picture? How can we kick our addiction to fossil fuels, given its sheer magnitude?

I set out on a one-year journey across America to find answers to these questions. I traveled from deepsea oil rigs to Kansas cornfields, from the catacombs of the Pentagon to NASCAR speedways, from the guts of New York City's electrical grid to a plastic surgery operating room, and into the laboratories creating the innovations of tomorrow’s green economy.

Over the course of this journey I discovered how cheap oil and coal built the American superpower, and why our greatest strength has became our greatest vulnerability. I met pioneers who are innovating solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, advanced plastics, smart grid components, and green buildings. I began to see how American ingenuity led us down the path of fossil fuel dependence, and how that same ingenuity could change our future course—leading us to an actual, factual “green” future free from fossil fuels.
—Amanda Little, adapted from Power Trip