The enormity of it

I’ve avoided mention of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico because there are no words for the enormity of it. The pessimist in me supposes that we can look forward to more of this kind of death-dealing merchant-adventurism in our future. The optimist in me is silent.

The only consequences BP appears likely to suffer are unanticipated expenditures, some nagging civil lawsuits, and a short-term drop in retail sales at the pump.

Compare that to the trashing of the two most vital ecosystems in the northern Gulf (the Mississippi and Alabama river deltas), not to mention the fisheries that thousands of people depend on for a living. Throw in the poisoning of uncounted sea and shore animals, at a time of year when birds converge on the Gulf coast to mate and raise chicks. To top it all, BP’s recklessness will pepper the Gulf’s beaches with nasty tarballs — that’s if we’re very lucky. If we’re unlucky, we’ll get a noisome coat of glistening crude that will sicken and kill for years to come.

We also get to be a laboratory for what happens when you squirt poisonous dispersants into a living sea. Anyone want to guess?

Mobile Bay
Satellite image of Mobile Bay
Shipping blues

Now, did I leave anything out? Oh, just the impact on the ports.

The lauded Alabama auto industry, for instance, makes heavy use of the Port of Mobile. Ships bound for the port are being told to steer around the slick; if they don’t, they will trail oil into Mobile Bay on their hulls, threatening the estuary.

Shipping companies are on the honor system. For each vessel, they must submit a written report to the harbormaster “stating that the vessel has not transited an oiled area and/or has conducted a visual examination of the external hull above the waterline for oil.” [Article]

So if you cruise straight through the slick, but are willing to state in writing that you didn’t see any oil on the ship’s hull, you’re still good to go, apparently.

The Lower Mississippi will have to fend for itself. Despite the slick’s reduced surface area as of May 5, many container ships and tankers bound for New Orleans cannot avoid passing through the slick. As of Monday the port had no plans to restrict marine traffic from the Gulf.

Then there’s tourism. You don’t need me to tell you about that.

Dauphin Island

No part of the state of Alabama is more threatened than Dauphin Island, a wondrous barrier island that was an important settlement and ritual center of the Mississippian civilization.1 The oil spill has understandably commanded the attention of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a collaborative research facility on the island.

The enormity of the crime, which will go unredressed, discourages sustained attention. We focus gratefully on the technological gambits being used to try to minimize the damage. BP plots to exfoliate blame and evade liability. All of us cast about for something else to think about. If we think positive, maybe it won’t be as bad.

1 Historian Eric Zellar reports an 18th-century Creek historical tradition that Creek people first encountered Africans in ancient times, when a boat from Africa ran aground on “shell islands” off the Alabama coast. The stranded mariners lived with the Creeks and “left descendants who could be identified by their coarse hair texture.” This was believed to have happened long before the first Spaniards ventured into the interior in 1540. (Eric Zellar, African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), p. 3. Zellar cites a 1775 document from the archives of the Gilcrease Museum.) It’s an intriguing story, buttressing the theory that West African mariners may have inadvertently reached America before Columbus did, in vessels that could not make the return trip to Africa, so news of the journey never returned to the Old World. The Afrocentric enthusiasms of Ivan Van Sertima and others make this theory seem more outrageous than I believe it actually is.

One thought on “The enormity of it

  1. Man, this is yucky situation, in so many different meanings of the word. A BP exec was on NPR’s Morning Edition a few days ago, clearly evading any firm commitments. And the socialist and materialist historian in me says that they will do everything they can to weasel out of responsibility; and even if they don’t try, the structure of corporate law (in this country and through global agreements) is such that they won’t even have to try. But the bourgeois idealist historian in me wonders if it might just be possible that some people in BP–maybe even some executives–will turn out to be good people who actually want to make amends, and that they will actually do so. Which is why I rarely listen to my inner idealist historian. He’s such a sucker.

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