Everyone who steps into the great outdoors and uses it in some way — hunters and hikers, campers and canoeists, bass anglers and those of us who fish for trout — are supposed to know the rules: Leave a place as you found it, take your trash with you, get involved in stewardship in some way so your children and grandchildren can experience the same pleasures of the natural world some day.
There are a few other rules, borrowed from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared, keep an eye on the weather, and have a plan for every situation should things go wrong.
Those of us who've spent time in what's left of the natural world have learned these rules from an elder or a camping companion.
You wouldn't think it necessary to teach anyone about protecting an environment that brings them pleasure, but it is.
I've seen dull-headed men who fish along rivers and lakes leave their trash behind, and it boggles the mind. Didn't they enjoy their time in that place and want to return to it another sunny day? Didn't they bring a trash bag with them?
A couple of years ago, I found a great spot near Baltimore for catching hickory shad during their annual spring run, but I was shocked at the amount of empty Bud bottles and tangled fishing line left by anglers.
In the 1990s, while fly-fishing for trout on the Gunpowder River, I saw another angler repeatedly finger-flick his cigarette butts into the stream. This was late spring, with wildflowers in bloom along the banks; the river was running clear and cold. How could a guy wade into such an exquisite environment and trash it, even on such a small scale?
From my vest I pulled a metal tin, once containing miniature cigars, and handed it to the guy. "Please, use that for your butts," I said, and he was glad to take it.
Be prepared to clean up after yourself when you have a date with nature — leave the place as you found it.
Which gets me to the Gulf of Mexico.
How can a company drill for oil 5,000 feet below the surface of the water and not be prepared to stop a leak, and quickly?
Something like 200,000 gallons of crude oil a day have been flowing into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. When BP, the British company that leased the well, finally got its giant "containment dome" into place over the weekend, its engineers discovered that a slushy buildup of crystallized gas would make it impossible to siphon oil into a pipe to take it to a surface tanker.
Now the company is considering heating the area or adding methanol to break up the crystallized gas, according to the Los Angeles Times. The company is exploring other measures, including drilling a relief well. But that "solution" could take three months.
So, as of now, it appears that BP has been foiled by well-established chemistry: Certain crystals form when water and natural gases, such as methane, are at high pressure and low temperatures. That's what you get a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Did BP just discover this? Didn't these guys know about the possibility of the crystals forming and clogging their "containment dome"?
If containment domes have never been used at this depth — and are therefore unproven at this depth — then why was BP allowed to drill at this depth?
If so much is at stake (bird and marine life over a massive area, not to mention the economy of an entire region of the United States), then shouldn't a company that wants to take crude from deep water have a plan for containment that matches the scope of its ambition?
You poke holes in the bottom of the ocean with the goal of sucking black gold out of it, you had better be prepared for the worst possible disaster. You'd better have a plan.
It's not enough to say the circumstances are "tragic" and "unprecedented." It's not enough to say you're doing "all that we can" to plug the leak and contain the oil.
"All that we can" should have been done before they even started drilling, and it obviously wasn't, and no matter what they do now, the whizzes from BP will not leave the Gulf of Mexico as they found it.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is email@example.com.