Ecology’s karmic retribution
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Jun 2010 14 Comments

The apocalyptic deep-sea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, is destined to cast a long shadow on all life in that vast biosphere. In its immediate fallout, the catastrophe will ruin the sun-soaked coastlines of Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mexico, impact Cuba, and totally annihilate the way of life of all the rural coastal communities, not to mention all marine plant and animal life in the sea. Oil from the seabed will inevitably seep into the Atlantic Ocean, as it is an interconnected water body, and the ferocious currents, undersea earthquakes, and volcanoes, not to mention the impending hurricane season, will drive the oil slicks everywhere.


Rising public anger over the British company’s unplugged oil spill has compelled American President Barack Obama to cancel a scheduled trip to Indonesia and Australia, and warn BP to make adequate compensation to the communities whose lives have been wrecked, namely, the shrimpers, oystermen, fishermen, shopkeepers and mariners. The collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig took 11 lives and after six weeks of failure to cap the oil well, nearly 178 million litres of crude oil has already poisoned the waters. The American administration has presented BP a $69 million bill for recovery costs to date, which will rise exponentially in coming months, but will not restore the shattered coastal paradise.


BP engineers are reportedly trying to fit a funnel-like cap over the leakage and collect some of the crude pouring out; but it is not clear how much oil is actually being caught this way. A relief well may be ready by August, but meanwhile the oil pours into the sea; seabirds, dolphins and sea turtles get stuck in the oil or wash up dead on the shores. Assessment of the impact on deep-sea marine life has not even begun.


Experts concede they know very little about how ecosystems react to such disasters; such is the true status of company R&D in the advanced West! They have no idea what is happening in the ocean depths and critical root systems of coastal marshes. The oil plume could choke and kill coastal marshes in the fertile Mississippi Delta and barrier islands, and thereby affect the region’s marine food chain, endangering the survival of innumerable organisms and species. The oil could create a huge oxygen-free ‘dead zone’ deep in the Gulf waters, smothering all marine life on the ocean floor.


Worse, neither experts nor company scientists have any knowledge about the impact that the oil and chemical dispersants being used to break up the oil globs will have on life below the surface. So far, over 650,000 gallons of highly toxic chemicals have been poured into the ocean, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Fearing these will make matters worse, the government has asked the company to use less toxic chemicals.


Similarly, the use of bacteria may break up the oil, but will suck the oxygen out of the ocean, deplete ocean oxygen reserves, and asphyxiate deep-water fish like grouper and snapper, and ‘benthic’ communities of sea-tubes and oysters. Early tests suggest this is already happening. And once the ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean collapses, the commercially important fish and crustaceans on the surface will inevitably be affected. It is a vicious circle.


Another cause of concern is the invisible roots of the Gulf’s coastal marshes. Scientists say that migratory birds nest on the marshes; shrimp and fish use their tangled roots as a nursery to conceal their young from bigger fish in the open waters. The marsh grasses and micro-organisms comprise the marsh food chain, which is easily stifled if exposed to oil, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, the invisible plankton, diatoms and similar organisms constitute the food chain, and stand in danger of utter extinction.


The enormity of contamination is awesome. Over 100 miles of Louisiana coast have already been hit by the oil; cleaning up such a huge and growing mess is likely to prove impossible, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Florida’s principal industry and revenue-earner, tourism, has already suffered, and that is when the black wave which will ruin the shoreline has not hit it yet! This will impact all cottage industries and collateral businesses, bringing large-scale unemployment in its wake, and no relief in sight.


The Gulf oil spill is a severe warning from Mother Nature; an admonition to end the ceaseless exploitation of the Earth and its resources, to stop the disrespectful attitude that Man has the unchallenged right to grab and consume anything and everything in the Creation, to destroy wantonly for today’s enjoyment, with no thought of tomorrow, and with no sense of responsibility for the generations to come. The mad quest to extract every mineral from the Earth’s crust, to suck every viable oilfield, has now become a civilisational disease, more lethal than AIDS, mad cow, or H1N1. There is no medicine; we must restrain and cure ourselves; else every future industrial venture may become a new environmental disaster.   


The bells toll loudly, and they toll for us. In this specific case, the US Federal Government has been exposed as having virtually no checks and controls over corporate greed that could have prevented this hideous tragedy. World over we are familiar with the phenomenon of crony capitalism; hence such a tragedy could play out in any part of the world in the future. In BP’s case, over 50% of the oil and gas extracted from the Gulf went to the US and UK global war machines, giving the administration a powerful reason to go along with company shortcuts, and to try to underplay the extent of the devastation until public anger made that unviable.


Matters are destined to get worse as the hurricane season approaches and oil slicks land with regularity upon the once-famed beaches. Florida, the world’s most prized coastline, will now sit on top of the worst environmental degradation of our times; its rich elite left to ruminate over the instant ruination of the nation’s most costly residential and commercial real estate, and the evaporation of their own fortunes. Trillions of dollars stand dissolved in the oil, slush, chemicals, and dead marine life. The mills of god grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.   


The author is Editor,

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