All The King’s Horses And All The King’s Men

GCF-Fu Newsletters, Publications

By Boyce Thorne Miller, NAMA’s Science and Policy Coordinator

For NAMA Newsletter, June 15, 2010

Make no mistake; the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is broken, perhaps beyond repair – certainly beyond our ability to repair it. If somehow the shattered pieces come back together again, it’s pretty certain it won’t look or function like it did before the spill. Many who don’t live along the Gulf coast will probably have forgotten what that was like anyway. But those Louisianans, Arkansans, Mississippians, Alabamans, and Floridians, Texans (and perhaps others) whose health, livelihoods, and happiness are destroyed by this event will not soon forget. Can we help our fellow fishing communities? Can we prevent similar disasters from happening in the future – there and here?

A vision for the future, along with a clear vision of the past might help.

It’s almost impossible for us to comprehend what is happening in the Gulf. Even those who live there must rely on television and the internet to expose the shear magnitude – the depth, breadth, and non-stop gush of oil, the windrows of petrol-gunk, the struggling and dead birds, and models that depict the drift of underwater plumes. But while the images are ephemeral, the oil is not. We may never know the full scope of damage nor ever see what’s happening to the diversity of life beneath the sea-surface. In this, as in so many of our over achievements, man is powerless to stop what he has wrought.

Image courtesy of the EPA

To add insult to injury, the government and BP insist on presenting us with information like how much of the Gulf is still open to fishing, how many boats and booms have been deployed, how fishermen are earning money as BP hires them for response efforts (not mentioned, at the expense of their health). We should not tolerate such spin put on such a grave situation.

Does memory already fail us? The history of ecological trauma in the Gulf of Mexico does not begin with this oil spill. There was already a large lifeless hypoxic area (deprived of oxygen) fanning out seasonally in bottom waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River. One can only wonder what synergism may be occurring between that and the oil drifting shoreward. And many years of daily inundation of petrochemical tainted tides, rain and air have taken major tolls on bayous and other wetlands — the result of emissions from a variety of oil-based industries on the Gulf. More than half the Gulf’s productive wetlands were already lost to draining, dredging, logging and development, and now this oil. Do we have any idea what the Gulf and its ecosystems were like long ago when they were truly healthy and diverse? Some historians and natural historians do, and it’s something to strive to recover. We must hold on to our history if we are ever to know how to envision our future.

How easily we adjust to the slippery slope of ecological decline. It’s all around us and we simply adapt. But before we adapt we should learn to anticipate and avoid.
There isn’t a contingency plan on earth that can recover more than about 10 percent of an oil spill. And if it includes dispersants, the recovery rate is even lower. So it’s time to stop blaming over the failure of an appropriate response and start complaining about the failure of prevention!

We should ask our legislators, regulators, fisheries managers and the like to work with citizens to develop a clear vision of what we want our communities, our land and our seas to look like in the future and to find fair and effective ways to get there using the best knowledge-base available. If we demand that, however, we must also take on the responsibility of adjusting our own personal lifestyles to help make it happen. Yes, the government has to change the way it operates; but we have to change the way we live in order to preserve or achieve the diversity of life and thriving communities we value. That may be the hardest part of all.

Behavior change doesn’t end with energy conservation and reduced oil consumption, which is a big enough job. We also must reevaluate our use of manufactured chemicals, how we farm, how we build cities, and how we use the ocean. Fishermen, who rely on healthy fish populations, understand the consequences all too well, for the ocean receives the outfall of all bad environmental decisions. If we needed proof that humans are part of the marine ecosystem as well as the land, the Deepwater Horizon has provided it. We must realize we can’t put complex things like the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems back together again, even with the help of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. We have to prevent them from breaking in the first place.