Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oil Spill is Worse US Ecodisaster?

Some are calling the BP oil spill the worst environmental disaster in US history, but I wonder if that's really true. It seems to me that the 1930s Dust Bowl was far greater in the impact on its area and its inhabitants, and on the country as a whole.

True, nature had a bigger role, with a drought over the southern midwest. But mankind had a big role too, as a lack of rotation farming and other mistakes sharply exacerbated the problem. Hundreds of thousands of people were utterly wiped out, and at a time when government support was nothing like today.

That's not to underplay the severity of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, of course. But I can't see a book like The Grapes of Wrath coming out of it.


John Fleck said...

I've long thought that there are a lot of things that we don't normally think of as "eco disasters" that have all the same characteristics, but that we take for granted and find acceptable.

The Google map tools people have built to allow you to overlay the size of the Gulf oil spill on your town are a great way to visualize this. Overlay the spill on, say, greater Los Angeles, and you'll see that the sprawling metro area dwarfs the spill in size. That metro area used to hold an entire ecosystem, which was completely destroyed to create a city. Any city will do here. The point is that we've decided some ecosystem destruction is OK (that from which we comfortably benefit) while other ecosystem destruction horrifies us.

I have bird feeders and some nice plants and water in the my backyard, but I shouldn't kid myself that the existence of my house hasn't made life impossible for the critters that used to live here.

David Appell said...

John, that's a very thought-provoking comment.

It reminds me of a letter to the editor I read when I lived in Tempe, AZ. There was a large fire in the desert and a homeowner had complained to a reporter about how now the burned landscape was so ugly around their (spared) home. The letter simply said "The desert around their home will recover, but that underneath their home is pinned there forever."

Dano said...

Yes, I like John's comment as well.

We learn in classes that teach ecology that there are countless human-caused disasters - fisheries, dam building, city building - that work in slow motion, outside of our sensory receptors.

Things that work at scales outside our senses require us to think about our impacts, and this is what allows us to look the other way or to get distracted and not pay attention.

Or because we are almost totally separated from nature - because we move from climate-controlled box to climate-controlled box to climate-controlled box to climate-controlled box - we just miss it, and no one tells us because full knowledge might mean preservation and no more exploitation.

What gets measured gets managed.