A professor once told me that whether religious or not, each and every one of us has a geographical locality that we feel a deep and spiritual connection to. For some this may be a place of formal worship, such a cathedral, for others maybe their hometown. For me it is southern Louisiana, a place where one hundred describes both the temperature and the humidity and wetlands emit their signature scent. A place that drives others away beckons me. As a kid my first interactions with the oceans occurred on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Multiple daylong car trips delivered me to places like Biloxi, Mobile, Galveston, Corpus Christi, Pensacola, and of course Grand Isle. By no mistake, as an undergraduate I choose LUMCON marine laboratory in southern Louisiana to be the first place I experienced marine biological research. Yet, the exact area where I conducted mark and recapture studies on hermit crabs and intertidal snails is now covered in oil. Alarming is that not just the Gulf of Mexico, other areas likely representing someone else’s sacred place, Kenya, Singapore, Alaska, Great Barrier Reef, are also experiencing recent oil spills.
Being deeply moved by the events unfolding, I have been consumed with thinking about the oil spill and the Gulf of Mexico. Below are some thoughts.
Why the impact on the Gulf will be unseen, unpredictable, and unfathomable.
Given the complexity of the marine ecosystems, we are unlikely to predict or even detect the severe ecological shifts that will occur in the Gulf. Miriam and I have already discussed some of the first order impacts, but the long-term chain reaction is an unknown. The environmental impact we see now, thousands of dead fish and hundreds of dead birds, turtles, and cetaceans, is merely the most visible tip of an iceberg that represents the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Most of the marine ecosystem is not known. Millions of species in the Gulf of Mexico may not even be known to science. How can we know what will happen to species we don’t even know are there? For many of the species we do know the basics of their ecology, behavior, and physiology, which would allow us some predictive power about the consequences of the oil spill.
- These changes will not only occur in the next few years but decades to come. Reproductive rates in killer whales in 2006 were still half of what they were in 1988 before the Exxon Valdez spill.
- Demonstrated time and time again, removing one species from a complex marine food web will send reverberations through the entire community. Remove a predator from a system and the prey profits but the prey’s prey suffers. We know that these trophic cascades will occur but when and where is anybody’s guess. Trophic cascades represent only one specific interaction within a marine ecosystem. There are far more with equal complexity. Thus…
- Changes will occur in ways we cannot envision. The initial oil spill will likely generate a butterfly effect. Aftereffects will have aftereffects. Happenstance, like blue fin tuna migrating through the Gulf exactly the time of the oil spill, will be hard to predict and adds greater complexity to the system.
What when wrong and who is to blame?
Sheril Kirhsenbaum said it best. “No matter what took place and why it happened, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico belongs to all of us.” Our decisions both political and personal led to the oil spill. When we as a society chose to continue our reliance on fossil fuels at level far exceeding our population, we caused the oil spill. When we as individuals, chose to not carpool, use public transportation, and drive fuel hungry automobiles, we collectively caused the oil spill. We allowed government officials, acting in our behalf, to deregulate, bed, neglect, and often condone the oil industry.
We, all of us, allowed oil industry to rape and murder our oceans.
Can we bring good from bad?
Perhaps, if we act wisely enough, we can use this a moment to reflect on and change our path. In a decade, we can look back and say this is the point where everything changed. Below are some recommendations for our way forward.
- What we don’t need now is more politics. Everybody is losing despite party affiliation. Our polarization has inhibited progress. The time for disagreeing with the other side of the aisle, simply because they represent the other side, is over. We must stop government as an arena where winner takes all and we do battle for the spoils.
- If we can get government working better and we have to, we need more regulation and oversight. If the economic collapse and the oil spill taught us anything it is that a completely free market model does not work. A group left to themselves, with incentives on economic gain, cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. Even as the oil spill has occurred, BP continues to fight regulation in Canada.
- Anything in the deep sea is risky. We need to respect that if we choose to drill offshore, no matter how much we prepare, another oil spill could happen. Thus, we need to be serious about our moratorium on offshore drilling. Over the next 5-10 years, we need to phase all offshore and offshore production out.
- We need to greatly increase the gas tax. When the gas prices increased a few years ago in the U.S., sales of SUV’s plummeted, public transportation usage increased, and there was exploration of alternative energies and reduced consumption. Now a few years later, with decreases in gas prices, the opposite trend appears to be occurring. With the money from the gas tax, we would fund 1. Research and development of alternative energies, 2. Development and construction of national wide public transit systems, 3. No- and low-interest loan programs and tax rebates that rewarded people for moving to vehicles with greater fuel economies. 4. Programs targeting low-income families and small businesses providing even greater assistance to offset the gas tax.
- We need to develop an NSF sponsored National Center that brings scientists, engineers, sociologists, and economists together to specifically address energy concerns. As a director so an NSF synthesis center for evolution I have seen utility of this model in making large scientific gains. The center would support groups, providing the necessary IT, engineering, and logistical support, to meet and develop solutions. The topics the center would support would be community driven through a proposal system with the ultimate decision made by council of academics chosen from within and by the various academic fields. The focus would be on product generation, i.e. tangible results, not simply discussion. Products, in any form, would be open to the public that would drive future innovation.