The Passion of the Gulf

Oil and Water: Will we choose to take the painful steps that future generations will thank us for?

By Nancy Knowlton
Like a toxic vinaigrette, a sample from the waters off the Louisiana coast reminds us, once again, that oil and water don’t mix. All major oil spills at sea bring with them heart-wrenching scenes of animals and plants mired, dead or dying, in suffocating black ooze. This still-unfolding catastrophe will bring death to life below the waves as well.
But even more profoundly, our addiction to fossil fuels puts not just the health of the Gulf of Mexico, but that of the entire planet, in jeopardy.
In 1969, the blowout of an oil well off the shores of California helped launch Earth Day. Back then, the twin threats of global warming and ocean acidification were largely below the environmental radar, but today we have no such excuse. As oil continues to gush into the Gulf, we watch videos of the ghastly underwater geyser in dazed horror. Will we absorb from this tragedy the hard lesson of the broader folly of our current course? Even more important, will we choose to act, taking painful steps now, steps that future generations will thank us for?
Dr. Nancy Knowlton holds the Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
A Heart Has Been Pierced: We’ve exchanged beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit.
By Gretel Ehrlich
A heart has been pierced, four miles of seabed violated, and the aorta is gushing unabated. There are no tourniquets, finger pressures, or shamanic spells to staunch the wound because none were planned for. “Top Kill,” “Top Hat,” “Junk Shot,” and the “Lower Marine Riser Package” have all failed, and the Macondo Prospect, the whimsically named reservoir of oil that is flowing freely into the Gulf of Mexico—its meager 100 million barrels that would have provided only five days of oil by American standards—is now adrift with no fixed destination, causing ecosystem failure wherever it goes.
The nature of the wound is vast. While surface oil is being mopped up, an underwater storm of emulsified oil is on the move: 40 miles a day, and when the Gulf Stream picks it up, it will shoot north averaging 3,000 miles per month. Vast areas of the Gulf and the Atlantic will see the end of vital food chains.
Oil is water. Ocean is time. Under the plume is a shadow that moves wildly, unseen. We have no practice of making natural resource decisions that put the biological health of the planet first. We have no ecological justice systems in place; there are few legal advocates for the natural world. Humans are corruptible; communities of plants, animals, and undersea beings are not. A year ago I proposed a tribunal court for crimes against the planet when injury done to whole ecosystems is irreparable.
We’ve forgotten that when we step down on the earth we are walking on a living membrane. Now we are wounded people recklessly pimping a wounded planet. We’ve turned away from a sacred view of the world, a deep openness in which we accept that all living things have value. We’ve drilled recklessly under the ocean floor for economic gain, and in the process exchanged a sense of well-being, beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit.
2010 was declared the year of biodiversity. One would never know it. Instead, our rolling waves of destruction continue on in feigned innocence while species risk extinction—and our own is in danger as well. We have failed to develop a panoramic awareness, the spawning-ground for compassion. We refuse to cut through the ambition of ego. The corpus, the so-called “body” of a corporation, feels little pain. Blame is laid as ecological boundaries are erased. The much sought-after oil in its emulsified form, no longer quantifiable, loses its dollar-worth and becomes, instead, an unwieldy agent of harm, an unscrolling undersea shadow-hand whose touch means death.
Gretel Ehrlich is an award-winning nature writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Best Spiritual Writing, and The New York Times Magazine. Her most recent book is In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape.
Make It Right: Now’s the time to get to work restoring wetlands on a grand scale.
By Majora Carter
Before the Gulf Coast’s 100-percent-human-made oil spill disaster, there was Katrina. That hurricane wasn’t the strongest to hit New Orleans. Forty years earlier, Hurricane Betsy packed an even stronger punch. The difference in damage was due in large part to the city’s surrounding horticultural infrastructure—in this case, wetlands and cypress groves. This plant life provided a buffer from storm surges. These natural defenses were systematically removed (paid for by our tax dollars) to make it easier for oil companies to move product. Stripped of these defenses, the other major culprit—poorly built levies—were unable to hold back the undaunted waters.
During my work with the Make It Right Foundation to design a green-collar workforce training and placement program, I met people who recognize the value of these wetland systems for the security they help provide. They inspired me to look deeper into how these valuable assets could be improved and leveraged to provide well-paying jobs for people to do that work.
Today, wetlands along the Gulf Coast are all under threat from the oil, regardless of their proximity to oil routes, and must be protected and rebuilt. It’s my goal to see a massive wetland restoration project with a job training and placement system attached. These are good jobs that can provide therapy for people returning from war or prison, or living in generational poverty. The value of the inland property they are protecting far outweighs the costs of restoration.
Since we know climate change predicts more and more severe weather, we need to put Americans to work restoring wetlands on a grand scale, right now. Jobs, environmental restoration, and reduced risk—this is the kind of shovel-ready project the U.S. needs yesterday.
Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and a Sojourners contributing editor, is president of the Majora Carter Group, an economic consulting firm.
Another Wake-Up Call: Will this disaster re-energize the environmental movement?
By Ched Myers
I live seven miles from the Ventura/Santa Barbara coastline in California, where on clear days the hazy blue of the Channel Islands graces the horizon. This magnificent vista is marred only by 20 oil platforms.
Offshore ocean drilling in the U.S. began here in 1896. In January 1969, Union Oil’s Platform A blew out six miles offshore due to inadequate protective casing. (In a haunting parallel with the current Gulf spill, the company had been granted permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to operate with casings below federal and California standards.) Over the next 11 days, an 800-square-mile slick formed in the channel, eventually fouling island beaches and 35 miles of coastline. The spill—3 million gallons of crude—killed countless seals, sea lions, and dolphins, and more than 9,000 marine birds. The president of Union Oil refused to call it a disaster since there was no loss of human life, saying he was “amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”
The following spring, Earth Day was inaugurated nationwide. It is now widely recognized that the Santa Barbara catastrophe was a major catalyst for the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the U.S.
The 1969 spill was “minor” compared to the current ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, as I gaze upon our beautiful but colonized Pacific horizon, I feel keenly the pain of the Gulf region. Forty years after that first wake-up call, I pray that another popular and passionate environmental counterforce to Big Oil will re-emerge to put an end to this madness.
Ched Myers, most recently co-author with Elaine Enns of Ambassadors of Reconciliation (Orbis, 2009), works with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, California (
Galvanizing Will: What "restorative justice" means to the voiceless victims.
By Elaine Enns
For two decades I have worked in the field of restorative justice, bringing victims, offenders, their families, and communities together to try to “make things as right as possible” after crime, violence, and violation. In contrast to the criminal justice system’s focus on crime and punishment, restorative justice (RJ) seeks to be relational, to repair harms, and prevent future violations.
RJ asks three basic questions: 1) Who was harmed by the violation? 2) What are their needs? 3) Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?
In our recent Ambassadors of Reconciliation (Orbis, 2009), Ched Myers and I looked at how the theory and practice of RJ applies more broadly to truth and reconciliation commissions, Native reparations, and war crimes. We wonder now what RJ’s questions mean to environmental violations, especially to the voiceless, nonhuman victims—fauna, flora, indeed whole ecosystems.
Most of the current discussion around the Gulf spill is preoccupied with economic losses—jobs and the fishing and tourist industries. But how will the environmental damage to islands, deltas, and bayous be calculated, the loss of intertidal fish and fowl, the destruction of the marine ecology? The short- and long-term needs of these victims would presumably include commitments by offenders to save what can be saved, to restore what can be restored, and to ensure the violation will not be repeated.
Who will advocate for such covenants of accountability, and who will carry out these tasks? Judging by how oil and engineering company officials blamed each other in recent congressional hearings, “response-ability” will be hard to come by. It will require enormous political will to respond to this historic ecological holocaust with restorative justice. I pray that our churches might play a lead role in galvanizing such will.
Elaine Enns is a mediator, educator, and trainer in conflict transformation and restorative justice with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (
‘In Awesome Wonder’: We are called not merely to exist but truly to live—and to do so within creation’s economy.
By Calvin DeWitt
Earth’s economy is under assault. Creation’s fabric is being torn, most of its fisheries have collapsed, microbialization of the seas is rampant. Moreover, great stores of carbon and heavy metals—sequestered from earlier atmospheres by the life of peatlands, coal swamps, and marine reefs—are being uncapped to fuel the fires of a human economy, ultimately to be reinjected in troubling excess into skies and seas.
Amidst the slicks and slickness of our lesser economy, the Saving Shepherd calls all who have gone astray once again to live—not merely to exist but truly to live—and to do so within creation’s economy.
As we recapture a few drops of the great rock-oil gusher released from deep below the Gulf of Mexico by some combination of arrogance, ignorance, and greed, shoveling them into plastic bags along vast strands of shoreline ... As we reflect on the myriad forms of life that had been flourishing in the rich waters of the Gulf ... As we hope eventually to behold creation’s testimony to God’s divinity and eternal power in the Gulf and all creation ... We might once again, “in awesome wonder,” come to behold God’s creation, refusing to be consumers of the world, seeking first the kingdom of God, and sing in truth, “Beautiful savior, king of creation.”
Calvin B. DeWitt, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network and director emeritus of the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, is professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Whose Land Is This?: And how much are we willing to sacrifice to have cheap gasoline?
By James Lee Burke
Sometimes I think we forget whose country this is. Woody Guthrie said it a long time ago: “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.” But since Woody wrote those lines, we’ve turned our government, our foreign policy, and our natural resources over to corporations and the politicians who work for them.
If this statement seems hyperbolic, check out the rhetoric of BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose British company does business under the flag of the Marshall Islands. The statement that the worst environmental disaster in our history will have only a “very, very modest” impact speaks for itself. But unfortunately anger at the arrogance and disingenuousness of these men will not reverse the environmental tragedy in which we are all participants.
The state that is most vulnerable to the floating miles and miles of three-dimensional oil sludge and chemical dispersants is my home state, Louisiana, which was once an Edenic paradise but long ago became anybody’s punch. The plantation oligarchy kept blacks and poor whites uneducated and poor and pitted against one another. Huey Long made a present of the state to Frank Costello. Then the petrochemical companies came to town and used the state in any fashion they wished.
What many people do not understand is that extractive industries have cut 10,000 miles of canals through Louisiana’s wetlands. These canals allow salt water to enter freshwater swamp and marsh areas and systemically destroy the roots of the grasses and trees that literally hold the land together. The consequence is that the southern rim of Louisiana is like a gigantic ragged sponge. The oil surge that is occurring at this moment along Louisiana’s coast will kill thousands of square miles of living marsh.
My father was a lifetime natural gas engineer. I was a landman for Sinclair Oil and a pipeliner and occasional laborer in what is called the oil patch. The oil-and-gas grunts on the ground are among the best and bravest people I ever knew. But the guys up top are cut out of different cloth.
As I write these words, the Gulf Stream waters that Woody sung about are being turned into chemical soup. Maybe it’s time to take a personal inventory and decide if this is our land or not, and if it is, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to have cheap gasoline?
James Lee Burke is the author of 29 novels and two collections of short stories, including Jesus Out To Sea. He lives in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.
Death Has Its Day: You and me? We are guilty bystanders to planetary domination.
By Bill Wylie-Kellermann
The heart aches with another apocalyptic wound opened in creation, deep and gushing. Instead of the real healing for which it cries, poisons are poured upon it, dispersing and hiding the mushrooming bleed of underwater clouds. Death will have its day. To one degree or another, all flesh of earth and sea will know it. Suffer the sting.
In the lust for oil, drones sail the deserts and robots sink to the deeps. Thus far the reach of the military corporate maw. And the doxology their choristers chant: Drill, baby, kill!
Make no mistake: The powers, and behind them death, are at work. In their own deregulated design, they slip the grip of accountability to human life. They pretend to sovereignty in heights and depths. They set limits to their own culpability. They make themselves, in the imagination of their hearts, too big for political containments. They place their survival, nay their eternal increase, above the common life of all creation. It is time to name their blasphemies and prosecute their crimes. The Mother of us all will not be mocked.
You and me? With our southern Gulf shore? Our freeways and our ignition keys? Our transcontinental vegetables? We are complicit in our own captivity. We are guilty bystanders to planetary domination. We are the users in a culture of addiction. Such is the bondage of sin and death.
Which is also to say: The healing of the planet and the healing of ourselves, inside and out, are one. Apocalyptic events reveal the truth, pull back a veil, break the seal, set us free. Such is grace. We best get with the transformation, dear friends. Be accountable to the Spirit and community of creation. Another world, one oil-free and domination-free, is actually possible. With earth itself, let us fight for it. Heal into it. Let it be.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.

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