It is oil.
The lifeblood of modern civilization, the "black gold" that drives industry, creates electricity, and allows us to span great distances in eye-blinks. Rich, thick, dark, and oh so valuable, coveted by many and held by few. Like gold or spices in the distant past, a treasure worth fighting and dying for, capable of making the poor man rich and the rich man king. It has played a part in every major war, starting with WWII, when control of oil determined the fate of the Nazi empire and condemned Japan to failure when they could not hold onto it. The Cold War was as much about oil as ideology, for resources were important, and those with adequate supplies of them gained the upper hand. Here, the Middle East was carved up, countries taking sides in a war that only stood to make them rich, as each side vied for the affections of those who held the precious fluid.
With that, lines were drawn, oaths sworn, and the seeds of future wars planted. As Vietnam ground down the resolve of a nation, the OPEC countries began to squeeze it further still, condemning America and its allies for the support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. For the first time, without adequate domestic supplies of oil, Americans felt what it was like to be at the mercy of the oil barons. Gas lines and heating oil shortages were just a taste of the power of nations holding all the cards. After 1973, with the descent of Richard Nixon and the rise of Jimmy Carter, an effort was made to turn back our demand for this tantalizing, addictive, but ultimately ruinous substance. Conservation was key, and for a while America was willing to follow the script, as long as it lead to cheaper oil. With usage plummeting, prices plummeted, and the reign of cheap oil caused an abandonment of conservation for the excess of the SUV and need for speed. We drove ourselves right back into the hands of the oil producing nations willingly, as sheep to the slaughterhouse.
Our short-sightedness has condemned us for decades; with free, renewable, easily-tapped energy flowing all around us on the wind, in the waves, and from the sky, we tied our future to a finite substance, found only in certain areas, which required enormous effort to reach as supplies dwindled, and whose by-products may be upsetting the delicate balance of Earth's planetary ecosystem. Hungry for more and more, heedless of the true cost, only concerned with the impact on our wallets, we were content to look the other way.
Now, our hubris is laid bare in a destroyed oil platform, a growing oil slick, and wetlands and wildlife coated in oil. While every side points fingers, and scrambles to find a solution, more and more oil gushes forth, a geyser of death, and the blood is on our hands. To say that the Gulf oil spill is a disaster is to minimize its impact, for while not as explosive as an atom bomb, or as violent as a volcanic eruption, nor even as mind-wrenching as a tsunami, the slow, inexorable spread of oil is devastating on a scale still untold, for the oil yet may escape and be spread by ocean currents to the far reaches.
That the nation that put men on the Moon cannot muster the technical acumen and resource to stem this deadly flow is testament to the fall from grace of our mighty nation, for a country that has spent so much time preeminent in science and technology, now finds itself hamstrung. The vain attempts to stem the flow show organization akin to consulting a Ouija board, and are inconceivable in their ridiculousness. Do the oil companies so dismiss the chances of such things happening that they are not prepared? Does it not occur to them, especially after some of the epic oil-related disasters of the past, to be prepared, with knowledge and supplies, to combat such a thing? Is the government of the United States that disconnected form reality, that they did not pursue regulation and monitoring with sufficient vigor? These are questions for the future; the question now remains: how do we make it stop?
Ultimately, though blame may be handed out, rightly or wrongly, the blame lies squarely with us, and our rapacious consumerism. The plastics we use, the gasoline we buy, the oil we use to heat our homes, the gas intensive vehicles we drive -- all of this contributes to this moment. When we ask "How could this happen?", we need only look in a mirror to see where it starts. We must curb our energy use, tap the free resources available to us for power generation, demand Congress and the White House stop pandering to the oil companies and bring them to heel, and above all, we must become cognizant that humanity is only as strong as its decides to be, and while humanity ties its fate to oil, we remain sitting at the edge of a precipice, staring into an abyss that may spell our doom as a species.