After Gulf oil spill, a new commitment to living oil-free?

As the Gulf oil crisis subsides, Americans may still be addicted to oil. But as my own bid to live oil-free shows, reducing our energy footprint is possible if we stick together.

The good news about the BP oil crisis is that clean-up efforts are going well and the Deepwater Horizon well is just weeks away from being permanently sealed. The bad news is that a briefly alarmed American public is likely to resume its addiction to oil consumption.

But some people are changing their living patterns on a permanent basis and learning what it takes to get by with far less petroleum. I’m one of them.

An ambitious goal

Back in May, with the crisis in full swing, I decided to go “petrol free one day at a time.” There’s something oddly empowering about setting an unattainable goal, which is fortunate because I soon discovered just how hard this task was.

It’s now been more than 90 days into my effort and though I am far from oil-free, what I’ve learned so far has been freeing.

When the oil spill first started April 20, I (like many people) hoped it would be resolved quickly and didn’t pay much attention to it. After all, I couldn’t go down there and stop the flow myself, so I would just have to wait it out. As the days became weeks, it was clear that there would be no quick end to the spill.

Something inside me demanded to know why I hadn’t been living by my own values. I had previously professed to believe in sustainable living, respect for the Earth, and all the animals that call it home, but the growing ecological disaster in the Gulf soon made me realize that my life didn’t reflect that belief at all.

Deciding to take action was easy, but following through has been hard. I wanted to make a list of every product made with petroleum and simply start avoiding them, but that list grew too quickly to keep up with. My fear began to take over as I was daunted by the integral parts of my life that I would presumably have to give up for this mission. I feared I would have to sacrifice my computer, my car, and trips to visit my family in Louisiana. And what about all that international travel I’ve always wanted to do?

My project was no longer a matter of giving up material goods or creature comforts. Giving up oil completely could mean damaging relationships and sacrificing my hopes of seeing the world. I felt I had to choose between a sustainable lifestyle and everything that makes life worth living.

That my hopes for the future and my relationship to the world were in such powerful opposition to my professed values was a difficult thing to accept. To sink into a pit of despair would have been easy, and in fact, that’s exactly what I did for several days.

A little help from my friends

But with help from my husband, family, friends, and blog readers, I slowly started chipping away at my energy footprint, doing my part – however small – to reduce the demand for oil that encourages such dangerous deep-water drilling in the first place.

My mother-in-law became my farmers’ market buddy and gave me a kitchen compost bin to start collecting kitchen waste for composting. My parents sent me video footage of my favorite natural place in Louisiana so I could share my love of this place with everyone who sees it. My sister designed a logo based on my writing about the spill. Our neighbors are now contributing to our large outdoor compost bin, and our friends are helping us tend our garden. Gradually, with the help of this support system, I am bringing my lifestyle into better alignment with my values.

If my goal really is to go 100 percent petrol free, you can already call me a failure, as there are some things I might never give up. Yet I’ve become more free in the sense that I am able to examine my lifestyle and values in order to make better choices. My husband and I now regularly discuss our options in various forms of energy use, and we plan home improvements with efficiency and conservation in mind.

Though I still have a long way to go before I can call myself petroleum free, it feels good to live with this level of honesty.

Mary Richert is a Louisiana native currently living in Maryland. She blogs at Not An Activist and contributes regularly to The Nervous Breakdown. She has also contributed to The Guardian’s Comment is Free, and Brevity. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College.

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