Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bury my heart at Port Fourchon

I didn't want to write about the oil leak. I really didn't. After all, I think anyone who wants it can find plenty of writing, and talking, and blamestorming, and conjecturing about the Gulf. But after trying to write on several other topics, I realize that this is all I've got. It won't let me go. And vice-versa.

I am obsessed with the underwater robot cam. I read everything I see about the blowout, and each successive attempt to control it. Every conversational lull finds my mind drifting back to the 500 gallons or so of oil and gas spewing every minute into the icy darkness from the hole in the bottom of the sea. I am cursed by my just-enough-to-be-dangerous knowledge of the sciences involved, and my recently nonexistent but growing knowledge of deep water drilling. Mostly, I am increasingly depressed and concerned.

I'm not personally, no-reason-to-go-on depressed. I am just sad for the people of the Gulf, and the people who don't even know how much they depend on the people of the Gulf, and a beautiful place, and a lifestyle, and a wonderful set of communities that may very well be lost. More than that, I would be hard pressed to imagine a more poignant example of the conflict between our current global culture and the planet on which we all depend.

I don't believe the chickenest of the Chicken (of the Sea) Littles who say the floor of the Gulf will collapse into the rapidly emptying cavity. I doubt that the Gulf will suffer the fate of the Dead Sea, or that the Atlantic Seaboard will be fouled with tarballs and oiled terns all the way to the Jersey Shore, or the Cape of Cod*. But the Gulf of Mexico is home to a complex and little understood food chain, on which any number of fish, and birds, and creatures of the land depend. It depends on marshes, and estuaries, and open ocean, and the deep waters of the Gulf, and damage to any one of these environments can break the chain.

And guess who is at the top of that food chain? Exactly. And it's about more than fresh seafood. This ecosystem feeds a lot of people, and many more animals, in a world already running low on food and ways to make it.

In other news, a new virus is devastating casava plants halfway around the world. Why do we care? Casava is the third largest source of calories for humans in the world after wheat and rice, even before corn. A blight will create upward pressure on food and fuel prices, as well as exacerbating civil and humanitarian crises in the third world. Also, starving people make bad consumers. It's going to become ever harder to justify turning food into fuel.

And we can't stop drilling, or even slow down. As many as half of the people in the world literally cannot survive without at least as much petroleum-fueled food as we produce today. The United States -- feeder of the world -- puts about five calories of oil energy (including oil-based fertilizers) into every calorie of food we put in someone's mouth. And the pressure is increasing. Even with their draconian measures, the Chinese have only managed to slow the growth of their population over the last fifty years, not reduce it.

Speaking of the Gulf, Mexico, which is one of the United States' largest oil suppliers, is predicted to become a net importer of oil within three years, following the path taken by the U.S about forty years ago.

So what will happen? Who knows? My guess is that the food chain in the Northern Gulf that supports commercial and sports fishing will suffer significant damage, and may well collapse. The already diminishing wetlands will accelerate their retreat, further damaging both freshwater and saltwater fish populations, and the animals that depend on them. Agricultural chemicals will continue to expand the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi, since our country needs corn more than Gulf culture. And the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival will never be the same.

Right now, the hard part is the waiting, and the abstractness of the whole thing. There aren't any people to rescue from rooftops, no felled trees to cut up, no power to restore. There really isn't much to clean up or rescue. Whatever damage is being done is mostly far away, and too diffuse or small to be seen. The real effects can only be inferred in months and years to come, if ever.

So we wait, and we watch. Sometimes we cry. And we try to hope.

* On the other hand, I guess we had better see how long this goes on.


  1. i've spent far too much time watching robot-cam - to no useful purpose, other than heightened sadness. "Omnivore's Dilemma" touches on the connection between the petroleum economy and food supply, and it's pretty grim.

    My anger isn't so much with the BP folks. Drilling is risky, working a mile underwater is not trivial engineering work, and shit happens.

    My anger is with the eeejits who were barking "Drill, Baby, Drill!" a few short months ago, who now bark "Obama needs to fix it, NOW!" and demand regulation, blah, blah, blah...

    You can't have it both ways, people. The consequences for our oil addiction are pretty severe. This is ugly.

  2. This is a difficult comment for me because I do agree, and get sad/angry about, everything you mention here, and yet...
    Spain had a huge oil disaster in 2002 (, and long-term, widespread disaster was, of course predicted. But as far as I can see, most everything is back to normal now (except, of course, for some of cleaning up volunteers now suffereing health problems).

    We do make a huge mess of the planet, and use/abuse resources unwisely, and yet the planet seems to have amazing powers of recovery.

    I'm starting to wonder if these ecological disasters get played up in the way that epidemic predictions do (anyone remember swine flu?).

    Also agree wholeheartedly with Daisy Fae on the hypocrisy of some of the actors.

  3. Well, I for one, and depressed,depressed, depressed, and while I would love to hope that this mess can eventually be rectified -- to any small degree -- as the writer above suggests, I have my doubts. My ill-regard for the hypocrisy of the bp folks and politicians and talking heads in this matter knows no bounds. This was reportedly the cutting-edge of our drill technology. That doesn't bode well, does it? I don't understand people who have such disregard for the earth and all it's creatures and plant-life that they assume it can recover from the relentless abuse inflicted upon it...seems callous to me.

  4. daisyfae: Like most addictions, we have ourselves in a situation with seemingly no exit. And I can't really talk about the hypocrisy surrounding this thing -- from all sorts of people -- without quickly ending up in an expletive-laced all caps rant.

    Pueblo: I agree with everything you say. One of the reasons I didn't want to write about this was that I didn't want to contribute to the general hysteria. But sometimes I find I need to give voice to my sadness to get it out of me.

    I know the Earth is resilient. And large. But the ecosystem in the northern Gulf has been in decline for almost a century, and this will not help. Carl Safina wrote an opinion piece for CNN yesterday that outlines some of the impacts, though even that piece is a bit alarmist.

    Wonder: I am always amazed how people are able to treat the environment like it's something external to us, that we can take or leave.

  5. I live in New Orleans... and I can't write about it. My heart can't stomach the thought of it, though I know I should. People around here are depressed and disgusted and nervous. We love our home and that includes the Gulf Waters. It did justice to the topic.

  6. Aleta: Thanks. It's hard to try to write about this in anything close to an objective fashion. And there is some reason to hope. This is not even the biggest spill in the history of the Gulf, and many of these regions recover more quickly than people expect. But it's hard to believe that the birds and fish are not going to suffer pretty significantly, especially given the time of year.