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BP's Hole in the World: The Absurdity of the Fix-It Mentality

The BP disaster shows how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle.

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And then there are the controversial chemical dispersants: more than 1.3 million gallons dumped with the company's trademark "What could go wrong?" attitude. As the angry residents at the Plaquemines Parish town hall pointed out, few tests had been conducted, and there is scant research about what this unprecedented amount of dispersed oil will do to marine life. Nor is there a way to clean up the toxic mixture of oil and chemicals below the surface. Yes, fast-multiplying microbes do devour underwater oil—but in the process they also absorb the water's oxygen, creating a new threat to marine life.

BP had even dared to imagine that it could prevent unflattering images of oil-covered beaches and birds from escaping the disaster zone. When I was on the water with a TV crew, for instance, we were approached by another boat, whose captain asked, "Y'all work for BP?" When we said no, the response—in the open ocean—was, "You can't be here then." But of course these heavy-handed tactics, like all the others, have failed. There is simply too much oil in too many places. "You cannot tell God's air where to flow and go, and you can't tell water where to flow and go," I was told by Debra Ramirez. It was a lesson she had learned from living in Mossville, Louisiana, surrounded by fourteen emissions-spewing petrochemical plants, and watching illness spread from neighbor to neighbor.

Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. After two months, we still have no idea how much oil is flowing or when it will stop. The company's claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August—repeated by Obama in his June 15 Oval Office address—is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.

The flow of denial shows no sign of abating either. Louisiana politicians indignantly oppose Obama's temporary freeze on deepwater drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. Palin mused on Facebook that "no human endeavor is ever without risk," while Texas Republican Congressman John Culberson described the disaster as a "statistical anomaly." By far the most sociopathic reaction, however, comes from veteran Washington commentator Llewellyn King: rather than turning away from big engineering risks, we should pause in "wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld."

Make the Bleeding Stop
Thankfully, many others are taking a different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else, too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; it is part of us. And thanks to BP's live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth's guts gush forth, in real time, twenty-four hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the Coast Guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen," he observed what many had felt: "The gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "We are hemorrhaging." Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop." And I was personally struck, flying with the Coast Guard over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upward, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

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