Commentary Magazine


Nil, Baby, Nil

“Where is the outrage? Where are the millions marching in the streets, where is the round-the-clock roadblock coverage tracking every moment of the crisis?” Such were the questions asked by the Huffington Post’s Peter Daou in late May. And the declarations were no less bracing. “We are at an inflection point, one that will likely determine the fate of our species,” he informed readers. The “planetary emergency” to which he was referring was not, as one may be forgiven for thinking, the appearance of alien spacecraft above civilization’s greatest structural landmarks. Daou’s concerns were grounded in earthly developments. Or, rather, a single earthly development: a pipe broke.

The pipe was, of course, the property of British Petroleum, and it broke when one of the oil giant’s drilling rigs exploded off the southern shores of North America. So as to preempt the charge of flippancy, let us be specific about the blogger’s idea of what constitutes a “global catastrophe” (one, in fact, contained within the Gulf of Mexico): nowhere in Daou’s call to arms is there mention of the 11 workers killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. Having found the actual human tragedy of the BP spill unworthy of even a footnote, he issued a rallying cry to take down “those whose ideological rigidity is ravaging the planet.”

While Peter Daou’s response to the BP spill might have been among the most histrionic, it was by no means an outlier in terms of its general thrust. Conservatives reveled in blaming Obama; liberals reveled in blaming big oil; and all America seized the opportunity to purchase righteous indignation at rock-bottom rates. What does it cost to rail against the fact of an industrial accident?

Louisiana native James Carville scored a YouTube hit single with a spittle-flecked tirade about how “we’re dying down here!” The New York Time’s Bob Herbert donned his ecology professor’s coat to explain, “No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families. What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach.”

Or not.

“The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected, a piece of good news that raises tricky new questions about how fast the government should scale back its response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” wrote Justin Gillis and Campbell Robertson in the Times on July 28. Since BP capped the well on July 15, estimates of likely damage have been downgraded from certain apocalypse to temporary inconvenience. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” geochemist Jacqueline Michel told Time. “We’re not seeing catastrophic impacts,” said Marine scientist Ivor Van Heerden. At MIT’s Technology Review website, physics professor Stephen Hsu did the genius math and concluded, “So, aside from shocks to otherwise already endangered species, it seems the long-run effects of the spill won’t be that bad. Don’t yell at me — I’m an environmentalist! But numbers don’t lie.”

And because numbers don’t lie, everyone should have already known that the BP disaster didn’t spell the end of the world. In 1991, Saddam Hussein dumped 8 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. Two years later, an international team of scientists determined that there was little if any evidence of environmental damage to show for it. The BP spill, by comparison, put an estimated 5 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It is not, and should not be, surprising to learn that the area’s wildlife is already testing clean and fishing restrictions are steadily being lifted.

The Saddam comparison raises an additional thought. If BP’s accidental spill had the left-wing enviro-catastrophists calling for Tony Hayward’s head and for a million-man protest to bring down the global denialist superstructure, why did Saddam’s intentional and more egregious act of ecological sabotage (which was the least of his heinous crimes) elicit nothing of the sort? After all, when the time came to depose that polluter, the left got its street marches — in favor of leaving him be. But then, no one should look for moral direction from a movement that cares more about the potential damage done to seaweed than the actual deaths of human beings.

“This should be a rocket-boost for the environmental movement, a time to finally put to rest the notion that environmentalists are misguided alarmists,” wrote Daou, the misguided alarmist, back in May. Now, with the half-summer of self-righteousness behind us, the environmentalists will begin composing their own narratives of denial. Thomas Friedman and others are cautioning that the real danger lies in what we cannot detect, see, or test for. This is faith inverted and misapplied — believing in the existence of unseen material evidence and calling it science. Let’s do as the great drilling proponent Sarah Palin advises and refudiate it.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.




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