When President Obama declared from the Oval Office that the Deepwater Horizon blowout “is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” he was giving this crisis historic stature and perhaps also missing the point (watch it here).
The Gulf is not a pristine environment. If your only exposure to the Gulf has been on the beaches of Florida, you might convince yourself that the Gulf is a deep blue aquatic wilderness. But as you travel west, the beaches give way to the marshes of the Mississippi delta, which are crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, manmade canals, and flood control levees. Further west, in Texas, the beaches reemerge, but shipping canals, giant refineries, and petrochemical factories persist. Over the horizon, in the Gulf itself, thousands of oil and gas wells pump night and day.I grew up on the Louisiana coast. I’ve fished in the deep waters of the Gulf for red snapper and in its shallow bays for speckled trout. I’ve gone crabbing in its marshes. I’ve been through fierce hurricanes, and I’ve seen it as smooth and unruffled as a sheltered pond. My kids dipped their toes in the ocean for the first time there.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is as organic a product of human processes in the Gulf as Hurricane Katrina was a product of natural processes. Shipping, flood control, and natural resource extraction have taken a nearly century-long toll on the coast. The Gulf has been abused, exploited, fouled and taken for granted for so long and with such consistency that the shock and horror over this one incident becomes in its own way a salve for our consciences.
Into this complicated landscape wades President Obama, the national political establishment, and the political press, little better equipped to understand it now than they were when Katrina hit. The President said that the spill wasn’t like the other disasters we face, it’s more like an “epidemic.” He was closer to the truth when he referred to “our addiction to fossil fuels.” The spill is more like the ruination an alcoholic leaves in his wake. You can clean up the mess, try to prevent it from happening again, and hope for the best. But as long as he’s still drinking, disaster looms.