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Naomi KleinBack to OpinionNaomi Klein

The Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

Photo: AP Photo/Dave Martin

Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, La., one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

“Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to,” the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.

And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to “doing better” to process their claims for lost revenue — then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they had read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil was really perfectly safe.

But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a Coast Guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that “the Coast Guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up.”

“Put it in writing!” someone shouted out. By now the air conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O’Brien approached the mic. “We don’t need to hear this anymore,” he declared, hands on hips. It didn’t matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, “we just don’t trust you guys!” And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the bleachers you’d have thought the Oilers (the school’s unfortunate name for its sports teams) had scored a touchdown.

The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would “make it right.” Or else it was President Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis.”

It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded absurd. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles away, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground — shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish — will be poisoned.

It was already happening. Earlier that day, I traveled through nearby marshes in a shallow-water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a seven-foot blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lighted stick of dynamite.

Photo: Kris Krug

And then there is the grass itself, or the Roseau cane, as the tall, sharp blades are called. If oil seeps deeply enough into the marsh, it will not only kill the grass above ground but also the roots. Those roots are what hold the marsh together, keeping bright-green land from collapsing into the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. So not only do places like Plaquemines Parish stand to lose their fisheries, but also much of the physical barrier that lessens the intensity of fierce storms like Hurricane Katrina. Which could mean losing everything.

How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be “restored and made whole,” as Obama’s interior secretary pledged it would be? It’s not at all clear that such a thing is even possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around. The Alaskan fisheries have yet to recover fully from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and some species of fish never returned. Government scientists estimate that as much as a Valdez-worth of oil may be entering the Gulf Coast waters every four days. An even worse prognosis emerges from the 1991 Gulf War spill, when an estimated 11 million barrels of oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf — the largest spill ever. It’s not a perfect comparison, since so little cleanup was done, but according to a study conducted 12 years after the disaster in the Persian Gulf, nearly 90 percent of the impacted muddy salt marshes and mangroves were still profoundly damaged.

We do know this: far from being “made whole,” the Gulf Coast, more than likely, will be diminished. Its rich waters and crowded skies will be less alive than they are today. The physical space many communities occupy on the map will also shrink, thanks to erosion. And the coast’s legendary culture will contract and wither. The fishing families up and down the coast do not just gather food, after all. They hold up an intricate network that includes family tradition, cuisine, music, art and endangered languages — much like the roots of grass holding up the land in the marsh. Without fishing, these unique cultures lose their root system, the very ground on which they stand. (BP, for its part, is well aware of the limits of recovery. The company’s “Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan” specifically instructs officials not to make “promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal.” Which is no doubt why its officials consistently favor folksy terms like “make it right.”)

If Katrina pulled back the curtain on racism, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money — not BP’s recently pledged $20 billion, not $100 billion — can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

“Everything is dying,” a woman said as the town hall meeting was coming to a close. “How can you honestly tell us that our gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know, when you don’t know.”

This Gulf Coast crisis is about many things — corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. As the BP disaster has revealed, nature is never as predictable as the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During recent Congressional testimony, Hayward said, “The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear” on the crisis, and that “with the possible exception of the space program in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime.” And yet, in the face of what geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as “Pandora’s well,” they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don’t know.


  • Gabe

    This was a very good article. BP should go bankrupt for what they have done to this country.

  • A. F. da Rocha Coelho

    “Steven Koonin, Obama’s under secretary of energy for science ,BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just fifteen months ago was overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. ” If THIS is the guy who’s advising our President about science, he needs to be kicked to the curb. NOW! What is it with our government hiring these guys, like the ones from Goldman Sachs, who are complicit in some of the worst financial and ecological disasters, the country and the planet have seen? Are there no scientists in all of the ecological groups, who actually care about the planet before profit? Are there no economists, who care about utting the health of our country’s and the world’s financial systems before the pursuit of outrageous profit? When is enough, enough. Is Gordon Gekko, our God?

  • Dianne George

    The hollow promises of these souless, consciousless, prevaricating (BP) officials is very obvious — the almost implacable smirk on the face of Tony what’s his name, CEO of BP, told me all I needed to know about the ‘why’ of the disaster; just another “business as usual”, matter-of-fact occurrence. Recently, I heard ‘ole Tony was on his way to Russia — to sell him their bill of goods, as they move out of the Gulf? Makes one ashamed to be human — or in the case of the above — Ashamed to be NON-human!

  • yobaba

    First off, Gabe – BP has done a lot more in the history of their company than this little thing called “destroying the Gulf of Mexico”. Please check this link:

    Secondly, you all got teed off when President Obama expressed his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis.” I wonder – what would you want him to say? “We’re ()#%ed”? In all seriousness, we ARE fu**ed, and all of us know it, but we don’t want to hear that from the president. Hearing about it ad nauseum from Foxy News is bad enough. We KNOW there is nothing that anyone can do right now to “fix things” and no way of bringing anything back “stronger than it was before”. A way of life is gone. It’s gone. At least for the people, they can move on, they can relocate, hopefully with the financial assistance of BP [who owes it to these folks]. Unfortunately the brown pelican and the Ridley’s turtle and the shrimp and oysters and the delicate ecosystem they live in can’t do that. The Gulf can’t regenerate itself by next shrimp season. It simply can’t and won’t happen – even if Obama had immediately run from his secret superman phonebooth and leaped straight into the air and had flown faster than a speeding bullet for the Gulf. We were screwed from the moment BP decided to drill in that spot. Hell, we were screwed before that.

  • Jake

    excellent essay, this is such a disaster but what’s worse is the train wreck of policy and lax regulations that led us here.

  • Loves To Spooge

    Why is no body screaming about Transocean? You know, the AMERICAN company that owned and operated the rig.

  • Jackie Kersh

    Why is there no reporting being done on the concerted effort to hamstring or, at worst, destroy the President’s commission on the oil spill? Now the Senate is trying to set up its own study group and is refusing to grant the commission subpoena powers. I am getting very nervous about the overt political power of the oil companies and the people they control. Somebody needs to start telling this story before it is too late.

  • News stories the mainstream media missed : 07/03/10 | Royce Eddington

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  • Catharine Tyler

    Thanks to Naomi Klein for her article! As the rest of the country watches with growing sadness and desperation, a cherished member of the family and the generous nature and gifted culture of a unique region are being slowly destroyed. Are we all to blame? No. Are we all responsible? Yes, in that, as Ms. Klein points out, we are but a part of the earth’s ecosystem, a reality that we ignore at our peril–and can embrace with empowerment. We know that the Gulf oil spill is not an isolated incident, and yet on a group level the full significance of this seems hard to grasp. Like the frog sitting in the slowing heating pot of water, we seem caught up in a system of exploitation that has become the norm. Back in the robber baron days, the LA subway system was squashed by the power surge in the auto industry. Do we now point fingers at all those commuters sitting in traffic jams? A lot of people would love to get a hybrid car, but until we can buy a Prius at the price of a used Corolla, we simply can’t afford it. We are barraged with “choices” and the message that we have the freedom to choose, but the reality is we are living in a Truman Show of corporate/media engineering. And when things go wrong, we are vaguely asked to sacrifice: once again, the American people are the problem. Based on the comments above by Jackie Kersh, the brooms of corporate deniability are very busy in the halls of Congress. Beyond the pain of it all, we can’t afford to watch anymore, which means that those of us who do not live in the Gulf area need to look at what is going on there as if it is going on in our own back yards. I believe that one of the powerful little rocks in our bag is this very connectedness Ms. Klein speaks about, whether it is with the past, with geography, with other cultures and spiritual concepts, with other events across the world. The more we can connect with, personally, outside the bubble we are in, the more we can see it for what it is, see our own lives and communities in a different light, and ultimately dethrone the “man behind the curtain” (and give him a job, too). This is real democracy, not the separatist brand of individualism we have been fed.

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  • Frank Monachello

    For decades now, particularly since the Ronald Reagan era, Americans have been fed a steady diet of political rhetoric that claims that all of our country’s real and imagined economic ills are due to our government’s OVERregulation of economic activity. The passive, self-serving acceptance of this mythology by those in the American public who simply want lower takes will very likely lead to more environmental disasters in the years to come until the national media takes the time to expose this myth and reveals how much of the environmentally sensitive economic activity taking place in the U.S. is actually NOT monitored closely by any federal agency.

  • Donald Willetts

    If something can go wrong, it will. – Murphy’s Law

    Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. – Finagle’s Law

    Murphy and Finagle were optimists. – Flanagan’s Precept

  • Catharine Tyler

    I too wish the Reagan era were broadly understood for what it was: this out-sized hostility toward “government meddling”–a hostility that in reality pandered to the special interests and will to power of the other big brother, corporate America. Government is supposed to protect the interests of the little people, those who don’t have a public voice or the big bucks to entertain congresspeople. Reaganomics seems less “toughness” (read racism, for one) than naivete about the nature of capitalism, which is to grow itself and accumulate power and wealth. The natural conclusion of deregulation was to open a Pandora’s Box of greed, as we have all witnessed and been hurt by. “Trickle-down” economics: LOL. The reality is that oil billowing up from the ocean.

  • Poop

    The disaster MUST, take this long. If it did not, how would we keep the nations attention away from the flood of new legislation? Oh look, Dispursent sales are way up. What a country.

  • Mary

    The disaster in the Gulf I think is a perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with our government and way of life. Please do not say that we need more government regulation so that our elected politicians can appoint their friends to high salaried positions to do nothing. We have plenty of regulations, just a lack of will to enforce them. More government does not solve the problem and only gives politicians a way to legally buy votes. We need campaign reform NOW or we, the people, our ways of life and our environment will not be preserved. It will continue to be sold out to whoever has the most money or “influence”. So much for Obama, the leader of change.

  • Jack Haesly

    The BP Gulf oil spill disaster has turned the Gulf of Mexico into the new La Brea Tar Pit of Los Angeles fame. Tar and asphalt will be with us, as in Los Angeles, for the next ten thousand years. Need proof? Visit La Brea in LA to get an education as to just what the Gulf could be facing in the years to come. It isn’t pretty.