For a lot of people, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a warning. Elaine Sargent is one of those people.
“It really opened our eyes,” she said. “It was a wake-up call.”
BP’s disaster in the gulf struck Sargent as a symptom of a larger problem. Against the backdrop of a warming planet, the oil company was pursuing increasingly risky ventures in the race toward fossil fuel’s end game. She saw the Gulf Coast as a victim in a global environmental struggle that wasn’t going very well.
“It may be the most important issue of our time,” Sargent said, “because it threatens our future.”
Inspired by Bill McKibben’s international 350.org group, Sargent started the local 350 Pensacola in the fall of 2010 with intentions of actively addressing climate change-related issues. A few months later, Sustainable Gulf Coast peeled off from the group to focus on environmental education efforts.
Sargent’s local 350 group hosts regular meetings to discuss various environmental issues and strategize about regional efforts and interests. They orchestrate bike rides and organize the annual Hands Across the Sands event on Pensacola Beach.
The group also actively engages local officials.
“When they’re continuously being given ideas by big businesses and corporations,” Sargent said of leaders, “they’re not going to hear us unless we also get our voice out there.”
Recently, Sargent became a leading voice in the local environmental scene, taking an instrumental role in the process that saw a collection of environmental organizations select Christian Wagley to represent environmental concerns on Escambia County’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee. The committee is tasked with advising the county commission on how best to spend funds that will result from Clean Water Act penalties—estimated to be between $100 and $200 million dollars for Escambia—connected to BP’s spill.
Commissioners have indicated that the local RESTORE money will be focused on economic development and infrastructure projects. Sargent’s hoping for the best.
“It’s a challenge I think for the environmental community to present to those who are looking at it from a strictly economic standpoint,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge to show them that if we don’t have a healthy environment we won’t have a healthy economy.”
The environmentalist is hoping that commissioners at least adopt a do-no-more-harm approach when reviewing potential projects.
“We don’t want a lot of road projects, let me put it that way,” Sargent said. “We don’t think that’s what this money’s for—putting more cars on the road.”
The 2010 oil spill may have been an environmental disaster for the Gulf Coast, and possibly a warning shot across the planet’s bow, but it also served to spark a passion within future environmentalists. Environmental warriors like Sargent.
And she’s just getting started. Or, as she says, “finding my voice.”
“Yeah, finding my voice,” Sargent explained. “I’m good at making events happen and getting people together, but finding my voice so I can serve this cause.”