Missing the Real Drama of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout

When a well started spewing oil off Santa Barbara in 1969, it spurred
the first Earth Day, which in turn launched the environmental movement
and a fundamental questioning of the balance between humans and the rest
of nature. It turned out, in other words, to be a real Moment.

It makes one wonder if there really shouldn't be a little more depth to
the endless coverage of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf.
(Which, just to be semantic for a moment, isn't really a "spill," or a
"leak," unless you'd also call a knife wound a "bloodspill," or a
gunshot to the carotid a "bloodleak." BP has punched a hole in the
bottom of the sea.)

Yes, the obvious story is important: There's oil spewing out, BP has
demonstrated infuriating nonchalance, shrimpers are watching the sheen
wash up on the coastal marshes, etc. This all needs to be covered, and
is being covered with the incredible agonizing boredom that only 24-hour
cable channels can bring to any issue.

And there's a "political angle," which as usual has been about
atmospherics. Is Obama angry enough? Is he connecting with "real
people"? This sort of thing is conventional good fun for political
reporters (especially when Obama plays along, announcing he's consulting
with various academics in order to see "whose ass needs kicking."). But
isn't there something more? Isn't this potentially a Moment too?

Let's think about the stories that are suggested by this trouble.

One has something to do with peak oil. BP has gone to all this trouble
for a well that taps into what they now think may be 100 million barrels
of oil. And that's... five days supply for the U.S? Does that give you
any sense of the precariousness of the arrangements under-girding our
economy right at the moment?

Another -- even more important -- has to do with global warming. Let's
assume that the oil from the Deepwater Horizon made it safely onshore
and was refined and then burned in the gas tank of your car. What then?
Well, the CO2 in the atmosphere would be doing at least as much damage
as the oil spreading across the Gulf. Consider the following things that
have happened since the Deepwater exploded:

* Asia and Southeast Asia have each recorded their hottest
temperatures ever -- 129 degrees in Pakistan, and 117 in Burma. India is
having the worst heatwave since the British started keeping records --
people are dying by the hundreds.

* We've seen the biggest rainstorms ever recorded in lots of places,
from Nashville to Guatemala -- the clear result of an atmosphere made 5%
wetter because warm air holds more water vapor than cold.

* Satellite data has shown that Arctic ice is now melting even faster
than in the record year of 2007.

* NASA has released new statistics showing that the past 12 months
were the warmest on record and that 2010 is almost certain to set the
title for the warmest calendar year yet.

All of these, it seems to me, could be considered parts of the
Deepwater Horizon story because they demonstrate that fossil fuel is
everywhere dirty. They change the political question from "is Obama
angry enough" to "can Obama lead a credible fight for real energy and
climate legislation?" More to the point, they connect with the mood of
existential despair and anger that the oil spill has set off across the
country. People are sad and bitter only in part because they see those
pelicans oiled; mostly, they sense correctly that our leaders have yet
to deal with what is clearly the biggest problem we face: the transition
off of fossil fuels.

The questions that the Gulf spill raises, in other words, go well
beyond: How big an idiot is Tony Hayward? What will happen to the
tourist economy of the Gulf? How cool is James Cameron's minisub? The
questions are more like: How out of balance with the natural world are
we? And what would it require to get back in balance?

You'd need to interview not just oil execs and colorful shrimpers, but
nature writers, solar pioneers and psychologists.

There's nothing pat about what's going on in the Gulf. It's the most
vivid sign we've yet had that we are running into the kind of limits
that people started talking about way back at that first Earth Day. But
its meaning risks disappearing beneath the endless stories about Top Hat
and Junk Shot. BP's great victory will come if it need merely confess
to technical overreach and pay a few billion in fines -- if that
happens, it can get back to making serious money, and the planet can get
back to burning.

Cross-posted on Neiman Watchdog.

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