Although BP has said that all is going as planned with operation “Top Kill,” nothing will be conclusively known about its success until sometime Sunday. While most articles about this environmental catastrophe refer to this as a spill, that word hardly describes what has happened and what continues to happen. The word spill implies that there is some finite amount involved, however large it may be. The Exxon Valdez spilled its contents into Prince William Sound twenty-one years ago. There was a finite amount of oil onboard and the flow eventually stopped. When the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well is finally stopped, we can call it a spill. Until then, it should be called what it is: an endless eruption.
The status reports issued by various sources since BP began pumping drilling mud into the well in an attempt to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. First there were reports that all was going as planned. Then there were reports that the operation had been suspended sixteen hours before. Then there were reports that the operation was resumed and again, everything is going as planned. Since not one single thing about this drilling operation seems to have gone as planned since the very beginning, taking BP’s word, or the President’s for that matter, about what is happening requires a moon-sized grain of salt.
That this has been going on for over a month with one attempt after another to stop the flow or contain the damage failing is proof that we have inflicted damage to the environment far beyond our ability to control what happens to the gulf and to ourselves.
In 1951, Rachel Carson published the The Sea Around Us. The book sold over 250,000 copies in 1951 and went on to win the National Book Award in 1952. The Sea Around Us and the books that followed, especially her 1964 masterpiece, Silent Spring, became pillars of the modern environmental movement.
As I watch the streaming video documenting our supreme recklessness with Nature, I remember back to about 1970, when Earth Day made environmentalism cool, when my grandmother gave to me her book-of-the-month club editions of both those books. I read them both that summer at my grandparents cottage on the north shore of Long Island. That was years before mysterious plume of brown algae entered into the Long Island Sound and nearly obliterated the local scallop industry, and even more years before a second mysterious plume entered the sound again just as the scallops were recovering, delivering the final knockout punch to a way of life for generations (or centuries if you count the Native Americans who lived there before we did).
Carson was a gifted communicator and was able to teach science in very simple terms for non-scientists to understand. Her writing style was beautiful and poetic. In the very first section of The Sea Around Us, entitled “Mother Sea,” she describes the formation of the earth, its oceans, and the live upon it in a way that is scientific and at the same time as spiritual as any creation myth. In her version of “Let there be light,” she describes the development of the food chain that binds us to our planet and to every other living thing:
All the while, the cloud cover was thinning, the darkness of the nights alternating more and more perceptibly with the palely illumined days, and finally the sun for the first time shone through upon the sea. By then, some of the living things that floated in the sea must have developed chlorophyll. Now, in the sunlight, they were able to take the carbon dioxide of the air and the water of the sea and from these elements build the organic substances they needed. So the first true plants came into being. A group of organisms unable to produce chlorophyll arose, and found that they could live by devouring the plants. These were the first animals, and from that day to this every animal in the world has followed the habit acquired in ancient seas, and, directly or through intricate food chains, has been dependent for food and life on plants.
When the oil gushing from this well is finally staunched, next week, next month or next year, where will we be? What will we have learned? How badly will we have damaged our only home? We can already see where the oil has come ashore the destruction of the coastal wetlands along the gulf. The local economies will be suffering for generations. Beyond just that, however, are the massive plumes of oil deep beneath the surface. Ironically, they may have been formed by the highly toxic dispersants that have been used, and continue to be used, by BP to prevent the oil from floating to the surface where they can be seen. It’s the ultimate cover-up. It doesn’t seem to have save the coastline from what may be irreparable damage and the long term effects to the health of the ocean, and with it, the food-chain and us. The dispersants may very well have made it impossible for the oil to ever be removed.
This is all clearly the result of a powerful industry aided by a regulatory system that is at best, impotent, and at worst, massively corrupted. Fundamentally, the problem goes deeper than that. The people of Louisiana are facing the destruction of their seafood industry. Louisiana, long known for its shrimp, and its oysters, and its crawfish, is also long known for its even larger dependence on the oil business, and has long pretended that those two industries aren’t in conflict with one another.
The effects of these miles-long plumes of undersea oil are as of yet unknown and it may take years to determine. They may live on for years, travelling around the world in ocean currents, leaving behind dead zones.
How many more times must this happen? How much of our human habitat must we destroy? Where’s the tipping point?
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