One of my first real memories of tragedy was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. My entire school was cheering on teacher Christa McAuliffe, and when the shuttle blew up in midair, I remember standing with my sobbing classmates, trying to make sense of what we had witnessed.
As an adult, I felt a similar connection the day after September 11. In the midst of a national crisis, Congressmen from both parties and both chambers stood on the Capitol stairs and sang "God Bless America." I will never forget that moment and the sense of common cause it inspired in all who heard it.
Shared national experiences are pretty powerful things. Although one can't really compare a terrorist attack on our nation to a mechanical failure that causes catastrophic loss, the experience of communal mourning is still similar...denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But what this list does not mention is "resolve". No one can deny that regardless the nature of the event, when this nation marches to the same drummer, it creates a powerful beat that can move mountains.
Yet I didn't feel that sense of common cause last month when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and killed 11 people. I didn't feel it when the oil erupted like a volcano, gushing endlessly into the Gulf of Mexico. And I still don't feel it even as the local tourism industry shuts down, fisheries are closed, water is endangered and the ecosystem is in peril.
Plenty of people are concerned about the Gulf, but it hasn't permeated the national mood yet. In fact, instead of honoring the loss of life and examining the ongoing risk, some lawmakers seem to want us to forget all about this tragedy.
House Republicans have responded to the situation in the Gulf by talking about gas prices and calling for expanded offshore oil drilling. The Energy Rapid Response team they have assembled doesn't even include a member from the Gulf Coast--only landlocked lawmakers who aren't affected by the pain of oil spills.
It must be easy to whine about paying more at the pump when your constituents aren't dealing with cleaning up an oil slick that is spreading by the day.
In all fairness to the droning, disconnected Energy Rapid Response team, we do have some elected officials actually from the area who are choosing to side with the oil companies instead of their constituents.
Senator Mary Landrieu, also known as the oil industry's PR director, is begging people not to rush to judgment even as her state's wildlife refuges are coated with oil and Louisiana's economy is threatened. She claims to be on the side of the mom and pop drillers. Wow. If a big oil company like BP is having a tough time cleaning up their massive, historical mess, can you image what would happen if this kind of explosion happened to a small driller?
If there is one Member of Congress that gives me some hope it is West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who has met tragedy with the courage to stand up to negligent, dirty energy companies. West Virginia was the site of the April 5, 2010 collapse at the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 people and injured 2 others.
Senator Byrd took time to reflect on the tragedy. Instead of being an apologist for Massey Coal Company, he is representing the best interests of his constituents by demanding that dirty energy is made to pay for their mess and that West Virginians reexamine the role of the coal industry in their state.
Dirty energy has consequences. We see that very clearing in the Gulf and in West Virginia. We see how we pay the price for dirty oil and coal in losses: the loss of life, the loss of fishing and tourism jobs, the loss of economic growth and the loss of ecosystems that sustain us.
Loss is what happens when you make a pact with dirty energy. And even though we may not necessarily have a national drum beat quite yet, Americans are beginning to recognize that we can break this dangerous pact. Seven in ten say that it's time to break our dangerous addiction to oil by fast-tracking clean energy legislation and by increasing our use of sustainable and renewable power and fuels. We can shift to cleaner technologies--things like fuel-efficient cars and renewable power--that will slash our reliance on oil and coal.
I would much rather see Americans rally around the promise of clean energy than yet another fossil fuel disaster. Wouldn't you?
Heather Taylor-Miesle is the director of the NRDC Action Fund. Become a fan on Facebook orTwitter.