Which is your ‘hard reality’; the eternal value, ecological stability, beauty and sustaining food supply for millions of species including humans or is it the turning of one dollar into two dollars and the devil take the hindmost? The New York Times has a gently accurate editorial today (8/19/10) about the Gulf, weak in passion and driving syllogism, but accurate non-the-less. And that is the bargain, eternal verities versus the power of immediate reward to be gathered up, from the private jet crowd to the ‘what can we afford to eat this week’, much larger, crowd.
Basic human understanding is not well suited to be the arbiter of such a bargain, and therefore of ecological events. The most of the universe’s most important processes happen in nanoseconds and eternities; ‘we’ are almost universally locked into hours, days and weeks – often enough even years can boggle us. The Gulf oil spill looked to us as though it were happening over weeks and months when it in fact it happened in nanoseconds, only the playing out the details took longer. Whatever it was that gave way, eternal rock or human pipe, happened in a molecule’s moment; the rest is, as they say, history. The human trick is to not have that moment happen, that is our power. And we have not been doing it very well for sometime, being tricked by our bargain as we are.
And somehow, we have come to think that we should be making the bargain, somehow we have come to believe in a kind of parity between the eternal and the dollar – meaning that what we think matters. But it doesn’t matter. The biochemistry of the water matters. The reactions of reactions of the species and ecosystems matter.
It can be said that the oil is consumed by the bacteria and therefore removed, but its addition to the environment changes things; the increase in the total physiological impact of bacteria changes things. It is not up to human judgment to either know or to decide how to change such things.
The people that I talked to in the Florida panhandle, Alabama and most of the Mississippi coast – people who live by the gulf, whose lives are affected by the interface of land and water, by the products of the sea – these people and their activities have not actually been greatly affected. (The coastal islands off parts of Mississippi and Louisiana have suffered the most.) They report having seen little to no direct evidence of oil and the related toxicity.
The oyster fishers were out by the hundred in Apalachicola bay; one and two man operations in small boats, little changed in design since I was a child, doing the demanding muscular work of “racking” the oysters up from the oyster beds – skinny men eking out a skinny life style.
Contrast: on St. George Island the giant RVs (recreational vehicles?), while not exactly crowding the camp (sic) grounds, were there in some abundance. One drove by as I was setting up my hammock with mosquito netting that, with matching trailer, cost ½ a million if it cost a dime. The recreating inhabitants rushed out to collect the ambience and also plug in the appropriate electrical connector for air conditioner and entertainment center and returned to the comfort of their space pod environment. The camp ground volunteer said business was a little better than last year.
I don’t intend to disparage these RV campers personally. I saw and waved to (in the air conditioned cabs of large ‘tow-package’ pickup trucks) and spoke to a lady walking her little dog and a boy on a bicycle – they seemed perfectly nice people. But from their vantage the Gulf is unchanged – even if it were dying. The conversations that I overheard (granted only two) were about the RV motorhomes they were staying in.
They were right to be in air conditioned motorhomes. It was too hot for humans. 90 at night with an effective temp. of over 100; too hot to sleep; too hot to be safe for fragile people. Too hot for an old man trying to sleep in a hammock. (I was struck by the panic I would have felt if I could not escape the heat by taking a tepid shower and then heading north, but that is another topic.)
I walked for an hour or more on the beach at St. George into the night, lighted by a half moon. There was no human there (other than me, of course): terns, gulls, sanderlings and a few other birds; ghost crabs and the sand fleas and mollusks mostly under the sand. It seemed to me not enough.
I could not escape the timelessness. It was like being in the boardroom of a corporation where one could not escape the dollar. This was the same sea that lapped at a shore where amphibians first moved to land, where the first whales walked, looking like a little deer crossed with a rat, into the water.