David Axelrod on Fox News Sunday this morning said that the Gulf oil spill is the “worst ecological disaster ever” — or words to that effect (the transcript is not yet available). This, of course, is historical nonsense. Except in terms of the volume of oil released into the environment, it is not even the worst oil spill in American history. The Gulf well is 50 miles out to sea in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, while the Exxon Valdez spill was in the confined and much colder waters of Prince William Sound. The warmth causes the volatiles in the oil to evaporate fairly quickly. And while tar balls are unsightly at best, their coming ashore is nowhere near as ecologically damaging or as hard to remediate as crude oil doing so. Crude is very nasty stuff.
If Mr. Axelrod wants some really catastrophic ecological disasters, how about the Aral Sea, where the Soviets diverted for agricultural use all the water that had flowed into it, destroying what had been the fourth largest lake in the world (26,000 square miles), as well as the vast ecosystem (and fishing industry) it had nurtured?
Or how about the London killer smog of 1952 that is thought to have killed upwards of 12,000 people, more than a thousand times as many people as have died in the Gulf Oil spill?
In this country, the worst man-made ecological disaster was, by order of magnitude, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Drought and poor farming practices in an area that should never have been farmed at all destroyed 100,000,000 acres. One dust storm that started on the high plains on May 9, 1934, dumped an estimated 6,000 tons of dust on the city of Chicago alone — four pounds per person. New York had to turn on the streetlights in broad daylight the next day. Two and half million people fled the area over the decade. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died of dust pneumonia. Many more, especially children, died of malnutrition. Others were blinded when dust got under their eyelids.
Mr. Axelrod, perhaps, should read John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath to get a sense of the vast human and ecological tragedy that was the dust bowl. Or just watch this four minutes of History Channel film.
To compare the Gulf oil spill to the Dust Bowl is to compare a summer shower to a hurricane.