It’s not an oil spill. There is no mere spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
There is a hole in the world. The floor of the Gulf of Mexico is hemorrhaging oil, and no one has a clue how to stop it. When they finally do plug the hold, the damage will likely be with us for decades.
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 twelve 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."
"Everything is dying."