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If there's any benefit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, conservationist Carl Safina told an International Wildlife Film Festival audience, it's a reminder that shortsighted actions have long consequences.

"Environmental issues are much bigger than we realize," he said Tuesday. For many Americans, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is out of sight, out of mind. But it's already put thousands of fishing boats out of work, and the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil are also adding to the overall pollution in the ecosystem.

We've justified continued dependence on fossil fuels because they are cheap, Safina said. But if all those costs were factored into the price of gas, he claimed, it would sell for about $15 a gallon. Saying we should maintain our petroleum habits for the sake of the economy sounds to him like the old arguments for keeping slavery as a way of agricultural production.

Safina earned his doctorate in ecology from Rutgers University, and has written several books on ocean science and environments. He was a featured speaker at the IWFF's 33rd annual gathering.

"Why don't we worry about the people 200 years from now who will have to live with the consequences of what we've done?" he asked. Americans still pay great attention to the Founding Fathers, who govern our lives with their 220-year-old ideas.

"What if the Founding Fathers had said, ‘Screw it - let's make money,' " Safina said. "Why can't we be that good?"

Safina arrived in Missoula on Tuesday, right after a four-day visit to the Gulf oil spill. He called it "clearly the most depressing event of my entire life."

That's saying something for a scientist who's devoted himself to studying the damage humans have inflicted on the oceans. Safina is particularly interested in sea birds like the albatross. He cited one example of a nesting colony on a tiny, uninhabited Pacific island.

The island is covered in human trash - toy soldiers, ketchup bottles, even a bowling ball. He photographed one fledgling albatross that died because its parents fed it too many cigarette lighters. The things humans throw away as trash and forget about don't end their relationship with the rest of the world. And the oil spill will be only the latest example of those worldwide influences.

"It's unbelievable," Safina said. "It's still coming out at the same rate, and nobody knows ultimately the dimensions of the problem."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at


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