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Some lessons learned from the oil spill

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The massive "Gusher in the Gulf" -- considered by many to be one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation's history -- gave us three months of teachable moments. Here are seven that I hope we never forget:

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1. Unregulated or loosely regulated international mega-corporations threaten our democracy. Imagine if a terrorist caused the BP/Transocean/Halliburton oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico? Would the federal response have been different? The fact that it resulted from apparent corporate negligence and greed rather than malicious intent makes no difference in terms of damage suffered, but we ought to consider as a country whether it made a difference in terms of our reaction. BP initially lied about the harm, avoided taking full responsibility for the mess, and only buckled after intense pressure from the government. Corporatists are not necessarily capitalists. Corporatists hold their hand over their heart and say "I pledge allegiance to my profits, and to the republic that I control."

2. Addictions destroy. We need an Energy Addiction Rehab Program. Our oil addiction compels us to tolerate things that would otherwise horrify us. What was the worst part of Sept. 11? Was it that terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, or that they killed 3,000 people? What's the worst part of the BP oil rig explosion? Was it countless of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf, or the loss of 11 human lives? Call this our Addict's Lesson. It's time we reduce our dependence on fossil fuel and urge lawmakers to invest in long-term alternative energy programs like wind and solar power.

3. We don't know as much as we think we do. For all our scientific and engineering wizardry, we are not infallible. We require an emergency-response team for environmental disasters. We must have contingency and "worst-case scenario" plans in place. A forgotten Katrina lesson, but a lesson that every winning team (shout out to the New Orleans Saints) knows: "You perform as you practice." New Orleans evacuated 90 percent of its population, because -- a year before Katrina -- they drill-practiced evacuation, discovering and correcting mistakes in the process. Humility and caution beforehand is better than embarrassment, panic and disaster during the fact.

4. Our government should be at work before, during and after a disaster. If the federal government or the former Minerals Management Service regulators were doing their job, the Deepwater disaster would never have happened. That any agency of government, at any level, becomes corrupt, says more about citizen awareness and involvement than it does about graft and negligence. It is essential that we become knowledgeable (see factcheck.org and politifact.com), so that we can hold all our elected and unelected public servants officials accountable -- before disaster strikes.

5. Politicians are human, for better or for worse. In retrospect, the Obama administration actually handled the Gulf gusher quite well: teams were ordered to put the fire out and save lives. The president ordered the Coast Guard to take charge of the relief efforts. The president dispatched the administrator of the EPA to quickly look into the water and air quality of the region and to monitor the environmental impacts of the dispersant being used on the oil.

He persuaded BP to put $20 billion into an escrow fund. He set up a chain of command and continually communicated with local officials and residents. He made mistakes, but mostly public-relations errors. He waited for BP to ask for more skimmers and other tools to keep the oil from reaching shores and he neglected to properly engage in the state and local politics of the disaster. The point is, when politics reduces us to point-by-point scorekeeping along the partisan lines that divide us, we lose sight of our common mission.

6. "The Endless News Cycle is a Noise Machine." There are times when dramatic urgency is appropriate. There is never a time when panic is useful. Whipped-up hysteria, accompanied by media babble, never belongs in a rapidly developing disaster. Journalists are responsible for verifying facts, putting forward principles based on those facts, and for providing information in a manner that invites debate and deliberation. They should shun, in a national crisis, airing insults and invective. Thomas Jefferson said that an essential principle of government is: "The diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason." The media and punditry should heed these words.

7. The Gulf Coast matters. All of our regions matter. The diverse cultures that compose our American culture, matter. We need to restore the wetlands and to protect our coasts -- because they matter.

The crisis in the Gulf is not over. After months of gushing oil in the Gulf, it will take time to restore the marshlands, get the fishermen back into the sea and the region's economy back on its feet. But remember, we are all in this together.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, and a contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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