Like most Americans, I am horrified by the unending catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and a short time before that, by the mine disaster in West Virginia. Both of these are products of a failed energy policy, one that puts coal and oil industry profits ahead of people and the environment.
It's heartbreaking what the BP oil spill has done to Gulf fishermen, families, communities, culture and wildlife. As the story has unfolded, it has revealed so much about the oil industry's role in American political life.
With their deep pockets, oil companies have purchased loose safety regulations, slack oversight and support from key lawmakers. Last year alone, the industry spent $168 million on lobbying — $16 million of which came from BP. The blowout on the Deepwater Horizon is symptomatic of this undue influence.
It is time for the collusion to stop. As long as it continues, Americans will pay the price in the form of devastated ecosystems and a fossil fuel addiction that benefits oil companies, not ordinary citizens.
I know what it's like to have a job that depends on toeing the line. I worked in the oil fields when I was a teenager, and my dad worked in the accounting department of Standard Oil. I remember the uneasy feeling that resulted when I heard company representatives claim oil exploration was great for American society, which contrasted with what I actually experienced on the job.
The truth was that oil exploration was great for the oil industry.
Long after I left the oil fields, I felt disgusted by the way oil companies advertised themselves as conservationists. While Chevron was selling "Human Energy," BP plugged itself as "Beyond Petroleum," even though oil still accounts for the vast majority of its business.
BP claimed its technology was safe, yet 11 men are dead and oil will still permeate the whole Gulf coast years after the "cleanup."
Furthermore, the company has a long history of safety violations that have resulted in other deaths and environmental destruction. BP said in 2008 it could handle a spill 10 times the size of the current disaster. Still, the company — and really the whole oil sector — fumbled through repeated attempts for weeks to end the gushing in the Gulf.
The BP spill is our reality check — a reminder that the oil industry looks out for No. 1 in the Gulf, in the Arctic and in Washington.
Ultimately, the only way to break the industry's hold on political decision-making is for America to shift to more fuel-efficient cars, more public transit and other clean-energy technologies. These are the solutions that will break America's addiction to oil, create jobs, revitalize cities and put more money in consumers' pockets.
Right now, there's much rancor in the halls of Congress about incremental versus sweeping change. It's an election year, they say, and it seems self-preservation is the first stop in the decision-making process. So citizen outrage and citizen action are our only hope for combating Big Oil's dirty influence.
Now is the time when incremental change just won't suffice.
Now is the time when bold vision and bold action are the only answer.
Harry Reid and the Senate backed off from trying to pass a comprehensive climate and clean-energy bill earlier this summer. But the time to take up that fight — to cap carbon and begin to end our reliance on dirty energy — is coming.
If Americans raise our voices strongly and loudly enough, we have a chance.
And it's our only chance, as far as I can see.
Robert Redford, the acclaimed actor, Academy Award-winning director and 73-year-old founder of Sundance, is a longtime trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. A version of this commentary first appeared in the August issue of The Progressive.