Our nightmare

What can we say about the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? There are the photos of marshes turned into toxic waste dumps and dying seabirds coated with crude. There’s the scale of the spill, which BP has been hiding (with apparent governmental collusion or acquiescence) the entire time. In any case, I don’t fully grasp what it means for 22,000 barrels of oil to gush from the bottom of the ocean every day. Underwater, the “Southwest Plume” is now “15 miles long x 2 miles long and the plume is about 600 feet thick,” and that’s just one of the plumes of oil mixed with water and chemical dispersants that’s spreading in the Gulf. Computer models show the oil escaping into the Gulf Stream and being carried up the southeastern Atlantic coast; from there, who knows, maybe to Europe. And there’s the experience of waking up every morning and reading new and more dire headlines about the spill, an experience of helplessness as we watch the tragedy unfold in slow motion. And further helplessness: seeing politicians promise tough actions, but suspecting that Tony Hayward and crew will probably never be imprisoned for their crimes, because their crimes are really just the crimes of other rapacious businesspeople who happen not to have had the bad luck to lose an oil rig in deep water.

Now there’s a second spill, though not nearly as bad, just to remind us that something like the Deepwater Horizon spill was an inevitable event, sooner or later, as long as we keep burning more oil.

Meanwhile, Yglesias titled a post “This Is the Sound of Hope Dying” after Senator Lindsay Graham, the lone Republican who was willing to work with Democrats on a cap-and-trade carbon bill, announced that he’s abandoning the bill he’s been working on. This move effectively dooms any chance to pass climate-change legislation during the present Congress, and the next Congress is going to be more Republican than this one.

A few years ago I saw a great documentary called Darwin’s Nightmare. It’s about people living on the shores of Lake Victoria at the headwaters of the Nile, in Tanzania. Decades ago, someone introduced a predatory fish called the Nile perch to Lake Victoria; it’s native to the lower Nile, but it’s voracious and grows to be huge, making it a very successful invasive species. A fishing industry sprang up around the lake, including factories where the perch is processed into filets and frozen before being shipped to Europe for consumption.

Meanwhile, the Nile perch is killing Lake Victoria. It’s such a successful predator that it has caused the extinction of hundreds of native species of cichlids, a family of fish that helped keep the lake free of algae. The loss of the cichlids has thrown off the ecological balance of the lake, which now lacks enough oxygen to support aerobic life at lower depths. And the perch, which reach over six feet in length and can weigh more than 400 pounds, excrete so much ammonia in their urine that they’re slowly poisoning the water.

But Darwin’s Nightmare isn’t about the fish. It’s about the people who live around the lake: the men who risk their lives on boats for a few dollars a day; the prostitutes who have no other way to earn a living and are sometimes killed by their johns; the older women who gather discarded perch skeletons from the dump and boil them down to sell the byproducts; the orphan children living on the streets who inhale styrofoam fumes so they can pass out and sleep at night despite their fear. It’s about the international visitors — a trade delegation from the EU that has nothing to offer but more of the same; the Russian pilots who arrive in giant Ilyushin-76 cargo planes laden with guns and tanks for nearby civil wars, returning to Europe with a cargo of frozen fish filets.

The perch evolved to be “fit” in Darwin’s terms — it’s successful at replicating its genes, at creating offspring that in turn create more offspring, and it does this by being an aggressive predator. When the perch is introduced into a different ecosystem, however, its very fitness turns out to be what poisons that ecosystem, perhaps even eventually leading to the extinction of everything in the lake.

Humans have also been a successful product of natural selection. Our survival and reproduction strategies — our fitness — are based on our ability to master our environment with technology. We’ve domesticated plants and animals, figured out how to transport ourselves and our cargo quickly over vast distances, learned some of the secrets of curing illness and disease. But it should be clear by now that this same mastery could be our undoing — and to take out the “could,” let’s be aware that this mastery is presently the cause of tremendous suffering and destruction.

I don’t think we’re doomed. But I fear that we’re doomed unless — unless we figure out a way to recognize, collectively, how we harm each other and our environment, and to act, collectively, to begin to live together in ways that eliminate this harm.

4 responses to “Our nightmare”

  1. jeremy says:

    This is brilliant, Dave. And so truly horrifying (yet so true, of course). I don’t know what else to say except that sometimes I feel like we are doomed. And that what makes us even worse than the Nile perch is that we humans are fucking ourselves over on purpose (by consuming so much, etc.) and accidentally (by creating catastrophic disasters like the BP spill, which I suppose is both accidental and purposeful)–while knowing full well (idiotic conspiracy theorists aside) what we’re doing to ourselves, not to mention what we’re doing to everything else that is prey to our own incessant consumption. And the fucked up thing is I’m as guilty as any other average person, and still I have yet to make drastic changes in my own lifestyle…

  2. LP says:

    Like the Bush years, the BP spill is one of those things I can’t spend a lot of time thinking about, because it’s too maddening / upsetting and the damage is already done.

    But if you can’t cry, you might as well laugh, at least a little bit, with the help of this UCB video.

  3. The people who believe it to be true don’t act because it’s almost impossible to believe in individual change making a difference. (I’ve in fact read articles in lefty press saying: don’t bother; it doesn’t.) The people who don’t believe it, well, they of course go merrily on their way, doing whatever feels good.

    I have no idea what the answer is. I have an uncle who said he’d keep smoking and drinking until god gave him a heart attack, but just a little one, as a hint to put the brakes on. He did have that heart attack, and I’m not sure if he’s still smoking. You’d think this oil spill would be our heart attack but I’m sure it won’t be. The pictures of cute birds looking miserable and endangered make people sad but they don’ t make people act smartly and rightly.

    Sometimes think it’s useful to think about the things you like most that you’d have to give up to live in a sustainable way, just to understand why nothing is happening. Plenty of stuff I take for granted involves conspicuous energy consumption. Could I give things up if it would help, or am I just going to cross my fingers that the shit hits the fan after I’m gone?

  4. lane says:

    great post.

    this proves why anthropology is among the hard sciences.

    well done.