The Real BP Gulf Tragedy: What If There Had Been No Spill?

Oiled BirdWhat if there had been no spill? What if the oil had simply been loaded on to tankers and gone into processing by the petrochemical industry as intended? That’s the situation we’re trying to create when we talk about preventing such accidents, right? We don’t want the oil spilling into the ocean and killing the ecosystems there. So if there were no spill, what would have happened instead?

Some of the oil would undoubtedly wind up as the petrochemical based fertilizers and pesticides which are creating the dead zones  in the Gulf when they are washed off of agricultural land. Also contributing to this killing of the oceans is all of the oil based cleaners, solvents and other products that we send down our drains.

Naturally a good proportion would go into the plastics that are so ubiquitous in our lives. Many of those wind up dumped into the oceans where they kill wildlife and form the huge garbage patches at the centre of the circulation gyres (the North Pacific patch is larger than Texas).

Some would help power the industrialized fishing that is destroying the worlds oceans. There is some evidence that the collapse of all fisheries could come in as little as three or four decades . Most of the oil would be burned for power, thereby producing more of the CO2 that is acidifying (ie killing) the oceans.

Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico

The extraction of oil is a catastrophe whether it goes as according to plan or not. We are not talking about whether we save the Gulf or not – we are quibbling
about whether we get to use the oil before it kills off the oceans. That is the only thing that is at issue. Either way we destroy the Gulf, so can we please stop pretending otherwise?.

More to the point perhaps, the destruction is being done to provide us with the goods and services that we choose to pretend are necessary for us. Our personal involvement is very direct and tangible; it is our consumerism that is driving it. The lies we tell ourselves now about “what we need” are going to become apparent when we lack the things we actually do need, like food and water.

Granted, this particular accident that occurred in this particular way is going to boil down to being attributable to some combination of bad decisions on the parts of one or more people. That is a given.

It is also a given that at least some, if not all of the responsibility rests within BP, and probably at fairly high levels within the corporation. There will almost certainly also be some form of regulatory action to attempt to safeguard against another occurrence of this particular accident.

brown pelican rehabilitatedIt is impossible to create a perfect system. As long as we are going to extract oil we are going to have accidents. As long as the scale of our extraction is huge, the accidents will be correspondingly huge. As long as we use fossil fuels there are going to be accidents, and as long as we do so on the massive scale that we do, the accidents will be correspondingly massive.

On the other hand it is possible to minimize the frequency of accidents, as well as take other measures to reduce the amount of damage done and improve the response capability. However, these sorts of measures cost, and each incremental improvement in safety costs far more than the earlier ones. This is not going to happen as long as we demand cheap oil as our priority.

All of that is framed within the worldview that believes that as long as there are no accidents everything will be fine, which is nonsense. It’s all pretty much irrelevant – the fact is that, between overfishing, the expanding dead zones,the garbage patches and ocean acidification, the spill almost doesn’t matter. The Gulf, along with all other marine environments, are under so many threats that the race is not to save them, but as to which destroys them first.

The real tragedy of the BP Gulf spill is not that damage which will be done, massive though that is. Rather it is that despite the disaster nothing of consequence will change because we are collectively going to pretend that it was all BP’s fault and that if there were no spills everything would be fine.

That’s unlikely to change because we get the answers to the questions we ask. In this case we’re going to ask how we prevent a repeat of this particular tragedy. This is appropriate for the individuals within particular agencies responsible for that narrow sphere, but it is not the question the rest of us should be asking.

The question we need to ask is how we restore and maintain the ecological health of the Gulf Gulf of Mexico Oil Spilland all marine environments. We don’t ask that question because most of us assume that we had nothing to do with it except in the the vague sense of collective social responsibility.

The advantage of that worldview is that we do not need to do anything except be outraged. We can pretend that someone should do something, but there is nothing we could or should do … and certainly the way we live our lives does not have to change. That it is a highly appealing lie does not change the fact that it is a lie

Are we even capable of asking “How do we restore and maintain the health and integrity of the natural world on which we depend?” without the unspoken condition “without changing my life in any noticeable way.” Of course that unspoken condition ensures that there is no possible answer to the question.

There is no way to change the destruction of the natural world that without changing our profligate consumption. To do that requires that we critically examine our own lives and ask what truly matters. The car? Or food? If you have any doubts try going for a few months without one, then the other; that should help clarify the issue.


To some that may seem a message of despair, but I submit that it is a message of hope. We are not helpless pawns that the corporations manipulate at will. They behave as they do because we demand it through our consumer behaviour. We are the ones in control, not them. BP will stop oil extraction the second we stop paying them to do it on our behalf.

What if there had been no oil spill? It doesn’t matter. Given our lifestyles the Gulf is dead either way . The Gulf, all other marine environments, and us with them.

How about asking “what if there had been no oil drilling?” Not in the Gulf, not anywhere. Now that is an entirely different question, one that actually contains the real answer to “how do we preserve the natural world that we depend on?”

It’s up to you which question gets asked.

Image Credits:

Oiled Bird by marinephotobank

Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico by nasa1fan/MSFC

brown pelican rehabilitated by uscgd8

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill by DigitalGlobe-Imagery

THE OIL SPILL COULD by roberthuffstutter


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