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.