Ah, Hypocrisy

I was 21 when I took the winter off from college to do an internship at M—, which even then was a little bit of a diabolical thing for someone pursuing an Environmental Earth Sciences major. I got a nice, wood-paneled office, and after I had a bit of a tantrum about having to make too many copies, I learned to use the software and got my own assessment project for an oil and gas field in Louisiana.

It was fascinating.

But I didn’t stay; I couldn’t do it; Dallas held little for me. I packed up my dad’s car and headed to Utah, where I spent a month or two camping alone, hiking alone, thinking. Graduation, Peace Corps, journalism: I never looked back. I hardly thought about that short stint at the family-owned oil company with its deep-fried Christmas turkey and impossibly friendly employees. I remember the female geologist—the only one, besides me, and I’m not sure I counted—with her sole piece of advice: to always drink my coffee black. (I don’t.)

But last night, at the Yale Club (I had unwittingly worn a green shirt, which made me the butt of endless Dartmouth/environmentalist jokes), it all came back. The CEO was in town with his wife, and they held an intimate dinner with a weird assortment of people—a chuckling accountant from Connecticut, an actress who played a dead girl on Law and Order, a former Broadway star, a computer science whiz, and the Principal Investors, big-shouldered, hearty men with easy smiles.

We ate well—steak and shellfish, things I never eat—and the conversation was friendly and polite. Until, of course, we came to the elephant in the living room: politics. (“Oh no, don’t go there,” someone muttered when one of the distinguished-looking men started expounding on the evils of the Democrats.) Followed almost immediately by the elephant’s bigger, badder cousin: Energy! (Imagine me cackling ominously under my breath.)

A quick recap:

1) Using natural gas to power cars is a terrible idea. It’s highly explosive, and no one with any sense is ever going to put it in his car.
2) Wind farms are ugly, and windmills kill birds.
“Don’t the birds know to avoid them?” someone asked. The possibilities of bird error and windmills in migratory flyways were mentioned.
3) Natural gas drilling is getting safer, more efficient, and greener every day.
4) “We need to be green.” (said the CEO)
5) “What do you think of geothermal?” (the ex-Broadway star)
6) “Nobody wants a nuclear plant in their backyard.” (an Investor)
7) “If we outlaw coal like Germany did, we’re not going to be able to turn the lights on.” (the other Investor)
8) “What we need is for people to be reasonable.” (the accountant)
“What’s reasonable?” (the other journalist)
“Reasonable is not outlawing coal.”

For the record, I don’t know who’s advocating outlawing coal, or why natural gas investors care so much. I agree that we need a sensible energy policy. But it can’t exist until we understand that we can’t have it both ways: We can’t have as much energy as we seem to want (based on current demand) and not have any pollution. Neither can we (who invest in, or work for, or own oil companies) be irresponsible about environmental stewardship.

I said as much, in my most diplomatic tones, and most people nodded. They’re not bad people. Maybe the CEO of my much-hated scapegoat, Exxon, is a nice guy, too. Because when it comes down to it, if the demand weren’t there, they’d be in another business; if they weren’t the ones meeting our demand, someone else would. That’s not an attempt to excuse environmentally irresponsible practices, but only to admit that if I didn’t ‘need’ to live at the standard that I do, I wouldn’t have to buy anybody’s oil. In some ways, I’m supporting the very system I love to criticize.

(Satisfied, Mr. Pants?)

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