The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a serious problem, and could get worse if the capping maneuver being attempted by BP fails. But the spill is not “Obama’s Katrina” (Rush Limbaugh) or “destroying North America” (Chris Mathews) or “a national tragedy” (Robert Redford). Except for the 11 workers who died, and their families, is the spill even a “disaster,” as is being said by practically everyone?
The recent history of serious environmental events is that as they occur, their significance is drastically exaggerated in media and political commentary: then little attention is paid when supposedly “destroyed” areas recover rapidly. When Mount Saint Helen’s exploded in 1980, many scientists said the local biosphere would require centuries to return to life; pundits said this would never happen.
Instead it took the area about 10 years for most wildlife and plant life (except mature trees, of course) to recover. When the Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, commentators called that an unprecedented calamity. Considerable harm was done, and some residual problems remain to this day. But aquatic and intertidal life were mainly back to normal in less than a decade.
We forget that the biosphere has been conditioned, over the eons, to resist and recover from far worse than oil spills – comet strikes, ice ages, super-volcanoes. Life would not be here if it were not able to resist insults worse than any caused by people. That does not excuse BP – the company deserves strong public condemnation – nor forgive the Interior Department for being in bed with big oil. (Surely this will make you feel safer.) But the sense of perspective is missing.
“I heard someone say last night this well could give off oil unfettered for the rest of our lives on Earth,” Brian Williams supposed on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday. “That’s right,” his guest replied. There is no chance that’s right, unless you have some reason to believe the human experiment is about to conclude. If similar past events are a guide, the spill will do less total damage than now expected, while recovery will happen faster than expected. Eleven people are dead, Louisiana wetlands and Gulf of Mexico fisheries are damaged. That is awful, but not the epic calamity being depicted.