“The Red Light on Bligh Reef”

[commentary for KTOO-Radio “Morning Edition” program, May 23, 1989]

The National Transportation Safety Board hearings in Anchorage last week were the Watergate hearings and the horrifying fireworks of the space shuttle Challenger disaster combined. With each witness, over and over again, we boarded the huge dark ship in Valdez, cast off and headed for a midnight rendezvous with the red light flashing on Bligh Reef. In painfully slow-motion replay we followed each version of events to its inevitable conclusion, then returned to pick up the next witness. Watching their twitching faces and halting speech, their restless hands pouring glass after glass of ice water, we were TV soap opera addicts. It was all just words–dry, emotionless words spoken on demand by frightened men, but we could still fill in light and shadow, smells and sounds. At times we were a primitive tribe crouched around the cool fire of our TVs, listening to an old, old story about how the world began.

And something did begin that night in Prince William Sound, something big, much bigger even than the millions of non-human lives snuffed out by the oil. Despite the best efforts of the oil industry and our oil-fed politicians to assure us that “steps will be taken”; despite their best attempts to convince us that “Mother Nature” will surely clean up after us, some new power was born in the blackness that gushed from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. James Kunkel, the Chief Mate and the only witness who showed any emotion, spoke for many of us when he described the awful moment the tanker ran aground. “I don’t mind telling you,” he said, “I knew that my world would never be the same again.”

A recent national survey found that almost two months after the spill, fifty-two percent of Americans were still eager for the latest news about it–a surprising, heartening figure. It’s tempting to hope that the catastrophe in Prince William Sound has given sharper focus to the deep fears only recently stirred up by last summer’s droughts and unprecedented high temperatures, the hardening evidence for the effects of acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the growth of the world’s population. Could it be that the spill has triggered the long-awaited moment in America’s history when the word “environmentalist” has become obsolete?

And none too soon. Those most closely monitoring mankind’s abuse of the planet agree that the decade of the nineties will make or break us. As Lester Brown and his colleagues wrote in this year’s edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s World Report:

“It is now clear that we are moving into a new age, for the current situation simply will not prevail for much longer. The outlines of this new age will be defined by choices made in the years immediately ahead. We will either mobilize to reestablish a stable relationship with the earth’s natural support systems, or continue down the path of environmental deterioration.”

We have turned Spaceship Earth into the incoming traffic lane and are skirting the edge of the ice. At least while Reagan’s pale shadow remains in the White House, the Captain will be gone from the bridge. Just ahead, a red light flashes over the year 2000. It’s you and me on the bridge, and third mate Gregory Cousins and helmsman Rober Kagin, back for another try.

To the sound of paper rustling and the clinking of ice against glass, a NTSB inquisitor leans into a microphone. “And then what happened?” he asks Cousins, eyebrows raised, voice as soft as sea otter fur. “Could you tell us what happened next?”

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