It’s now by turns a grim and darkly ludicrous part of our daily routine: monitoring the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or the Gulf of Oil, as various fundits and pundits have it.
Amid all the desperate and, if it wasn’t so horrific, absurd attempts to stop the undersea gusher, I’ve been thinking about passages in Charles Wohlforth’s new book, The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth. Alaskan Wohlforth was on the scene in 1989, covering the oil spill off the coast of Valdez, “the little industrial town at the end of the Alaska pipeline, where tankers loaded.” Wohlforth’s attorney father had helped with the financing for the oil tanker terminal in 1977. A dozen years later, Wohforth wangles his way on board a helicopter and gets a bird’s-eye-view of the tanker, the Exxon Valdez, on Bligh Reef. They land and wade out into the oil, which comes half-way up their legs. The pilot pulls a lump from the glop. It’s a cormorant. Wohlforth writes,
“The oil slowly flowed onward, out of the sound, along the Kenai Peninsula, to Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island, killing hundred of thousands of birds and thousands of otters, sinking irremovably into beaches, and spreading across an area so large it took much of a day and a change of planes just to fly from one end to the other.
Those in charge knew it was hopeless. . . “
Wohlforth goes on to recount the carnival of ineptitude, evasions, and lies put on by the oil company, and the mad dispersal of money that created a battalion of “spillionaires” as Exxon paid off those whose livelihoods had been destroyed. The cleanup was a failure; all the law suits and political posturing were worthless. Nothing was learned.
Wohlforth, however, has a lot of interesting things to say about how we got to this point, and where we should go from here. I wonder if he’s walking the beaches of Flordia, the marshes of Louisiana.