Broken in Two

I attended the Gulf Gathering at Weeks Bay, Alabama last week. It was a conference of grassroots groups from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, coming together to try and figure how to put their region together again after the BP oil disaster.

This being the gulf, implications from the other recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina – were never far away. A young man from St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana with the St. Bernard accent (it sounds more like Brooklyn or Baltimore than Louisiana) said, “I was only 20 when Katrina hit. Sure, I lost things, but I’m at an age when I don’t have much to lose. Still, it breaks your life in two. There was before Katrina and after Katrina… and now this.”

“And now this” is the spoiled coastline, the wounded fisheries, the environment that will never be the same. Rick Steiner, the marine conservationist who delivered the keynote address at the conference said, “The Gulf of Mexico will never be the same. That’s not to say it won’t recover, in some ways. That’s not to say it won’t thrive again, somehow. But the Gulf of Mexico will never return to the state it was before the spill.”

He should know. Professor Steiner lived on the shore of Prince William Sound in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez ran afoul (to put it mildly) of Bligh Reef in 1989. He’s been studying the effects on the sound ever since.

Maybe one can read into Prof. Steiner’s words that everything will soon be all right. Not the same, but all right enough that the fishermen can go back to work and the tourists can come back and not work. But of the 30 most affected species in Prince William Sound, 20 have not yet recovered from the Exxon spill, even 21 years later. Many never will. The last of their kind are living out “functional extinction.” Members of their populations are still living, but their numbers are so reduced that the population as a whole is doomed to die out soon. Now there are species in the Gulf that are functionally extinct. We’re just not sure which ones, yet. Those lives are not spilt in two, only ended.

The White House wants you to think it’s all OK. It canceled the deepwater drilling moratorium Tuesday, saying it’s now safe to go back and drill, baby, drill. This decision has nothing to do with the environmental health of the Gulf and everything to do with politics. It’s worth noting that the decision comes a week after the Graham-Reilly Oil Spill Commission blasted the White House for forcing overly optimistic spill scenarios on government scientists last spring. More significantly, it comes three weeks to the day before voters go to the polls for the mid-term elections and Barack Obama is eager to kiss the feet of tea-party right-wingers. Feet that will kick him in the teeth anyhow.

Two stories this week, one in the New Yorker, the other in the Washington Post, make clear just what a political football oil drilling, global warming and environmental issues in general are in Washington, if there had ever been any doubts.

All this opening of the outer continental shelf was supposed to be part of a “grand bargain” in which the White House and the Democrats give on oil drilling, loan guarantees for new nuclear plants and EPA regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. In return, the Republicans were to give on carbon caps and funding for renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

What happened? For some reason that begs understanding, the BP oil disaster, made passage of a “clean energy” bill an impossibility in Washington. It was as if a terrorist attack made it impossible to appropriate more funding for police. The deal fell apart, but because the White House had surrendered its negotiating points in advance, the Republicans and corporations got everything they wanted, the White House and the Democrats got nothing. Yay! We’re moving faster than ever toward frying our civilization off the face of the globe while proven solutions will remain unused. Smooth move, Barry.

It might all be just another case of Democratic incompetence, but the wager in this game that is not a game is our collective future. Barack Ozymandias.

It’s not just lives that can be broken in two by the bungling of so-called leaders. Presidencies can be broken in two. So can society. So can the climate.

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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