You know what the Gulf of Mexico is; that is, where it is; that it is a salt water sea of some considerable size. But what are its dimensions  and its capacities to respond to the one quarter of a billion gallons of oil released by the collapsed BP rig and the other millions of gallons of oil that spill and seep into the water, some naturally and some as a consequence of drilling. And what about the other processes acting on the water and the life in the water?
Observing what is happening in the Gulf from my living room is one thing, but having just traveled along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Gulf coast it is abundantly clear that all of the influences on the region, its land, people and wildlife, are of a piece. Oil released into the environment, hurricanes, agricultural runoff, over population, habitat destruction, the complex garbage of an industrial/consumer society and the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change: these all are working together.
I grew up on the gulf and have watched its changes for 60 years. There has been one overarching force driving these changes: human agency. It is defined simply as an increase in all human actions: roads, structures, fishing pressure, pollution and trash.
‘Environmental free services’-- all the chemical and biochemical processes that naturally functioning ecosystems do to “metabolize” the toxins that are a consequence of energetic systems like the earth’s surface -- can be modeled by a filling bucket: if water is added to a bucket slowly (and slowly enough, evaporation can equal the input) the bucket completely contains it right up until the moment when it hits the rim, at which point it is as though the bucket were not even there; the newly added water flows straight onto the ground. The question for us is not only; “What are the effects of the BP oil infusion into the Gulf?” But; “What is the limit to the depth of the bucket of free services correcting our excesses and mistakes?” It is not only the BP oil being added to that bucket, but all the rest. It is not only the oil all together, but the industrial pollution and agricultural runoff. And it is not only all of the direct economic activities, but it is hormones and antibiotics from our bodies, runoff from the millions of square feet of roads, roofs, and parking lots. It is in the changes to the very air that flows from our cities and highways out over the water. All of these together are filling the bucket and contributing to that moment when environmental free services are overwhelmed.
Should this argument let BP off the hook? Absolutely not. It should redouble our anger and our demand for BP’s full restoration of damages. Though not so fast: In order for BP to pay for all the damage done, the company will have to contribute to the use of environmental free services both in the gulf and elsewhere in their oil empire. The making of money by an oil company increases the rate of filling the bucket. I know it will not happen, but tangible wealth should be taken from stock holders, upper level executive personnel, board members; these people should not be made wealthier by the damages caused to other places in the accumulation of the wealth needed to pay for the damages to the Gulf.
BP has used environmental free services belonging to all of life on earth without asking. These are services that are the truest of the Commons. They can be claimed (legalistically), but they cannot be owned. Any person or institution that misuses them should have to pay dearly. BP should have to pay with its corporate life; the oil industry should have to pay by being forced by governments worldwide to wind down their extractive operations and devote resources to less bucket-filling energy producing processes. Pipe dreams! Gulf induced hypnotic trance!
The reality is that it is becoming more and more difficult to live, as in to have a productive engaged life, on the Gulf coast. Just being outside in much of the summer is an act of courage, stupidity or desperation. It was 90º F at night with an effective temperature of over 100º F on the Florida coast. I tried sleeping outside, as I did as a young swamp-rat, in a hammock. I quite literally could not cool. My body temperature rose to uncomfortable levels and what was supposed to be sleep was a fitful, sweaty entertainment of hallucinations. My only escape would have been an air conditioned RV energized with BP’s oil (or some version there of). I was told that these were not the hottest days!
Still people fish there, shrimp and oyster. Still logs are cut; vegetables are grown. Tourists enjoy the beaches, and livings are made. But if we continue on as we are, the crumbling will soon be unavoidably upon us. At the waters edge this should be especially clear.
Two eternal systems meet in easy union, but different worlds. The sea carries the image of the land in its chemistry and presages our future. I fear that we are only moments from overtopping the rim of the environmental free services bucket, and in places like the Gulf it will be clearest as fish disappear, mollusks become uneatable, birds reduce in number along with crabs and shrimp, sea turtles begin to go, whale and dolphin populations are reduced; But the water will still be a beautiful blue-green and even clearer without the plankton.
The fisherman’s cottage, the farmer’s fields (and my family’s former river front) will be paved and built over with thousands of little (and not so little) houses as the final act – an economic bubble to get the most of the last. The beauty will remain and draw us to it even as it is dieing.
I am not describing the future, just what I saw as I rode coast roads from Gulf Port to Bradenton.
 The Gulf region covers approximately 600,000 square miles, measuring approximately 995 miles from east to west, 560 miles from north to south. The Gulf of Mexico basin resembles a large pit with a broad shallow rim containing a volume of 2,434,000 cubic kilometers of water (6.43 * 1017 or 643 quadrillion gallons). (taken from: http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/about/facts.html)