A partially oiled sea lion after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
I didn’t know squat about environmental issues when an oil tanker captain crashed the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska 20 years ago. I was in college at the University of Georgia at the time and the seminal moments of my life then were determined by the quality of the dates I got and by the points I scored in our daily intramural basketball games.
The spill in Alaska, though, struck me as a moral affront: I might not ever see Alaska but my heart sank every time I viewed TV coverage of innocent animals there covered in oil. I put the blame squarely on Exxon’s shoulders for allowing the tragedy to happen. I also made myself a promise: I would not buy gasoline from Exxon for as long as I lived. It was a one-man boycott I hoped others would follow.
One man protesting against a goliath may have seemed fruitless but I firmly believed in one of the many lessons I had learned from one of my heroes — Hawkeye Pierce, the great surgeon from M*A*S*H. After getting laughed at by an immoral man who chastised him for his inability to change the world, Hawkeye said he couldn’t concern himself with that. He could, however, make sure he did his part to change his little corner of it.
As a Southerner, I also knew the power of economic boycotts...the statements that can be made and laws changed by treating every dollar I spend as if they were votes for the recipients. Sure enough, I did not spend one penny at Exxon that year or the year after.
In 1992, fate took me to live in Alaska for five months. I didn’t make it to Prince William Sound but my time there changed my life. I was simply awed by so many sights. I watched bald eagles soar 20 feet over my head as I sat on a cliff watching the sun refuse to go down. I encountered a family of moose on a bike path and was floored by their size and their awkward beauty. I stood at the confluence of a pair of streams, one leg submerged in crystal clear water, the other invisible beneath glacial blue silt.
When darkness did come, friends woke me up so I could step out into the snow and see turquoise green lights skipping across the sky. Wow.
My experiences in the last frontier stiffened my resolve to only use Exxon’s competitors. That meant miniscule sacrifices such as driving further to get to a gas station or using one on a side of the road that made exiting much more difficult. I felt that was the least I could do.
Twenty years have gone by and I still have not purchased a single gallon of gas from Exxon. I wish others would take up the cause even now but, like Hawkeye, I can’t lose sleep over the actions not taken by people across the globe. I’ve got plenty to work on here on M Street in Washington D.C., doing my part each day to help The Wilderness Society protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.
photo: A partially oiled sea lion after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.