- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2010



It’s the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” as President Obama describes it. Lesser mortals call it a “catastrophe” and “calamity.” Some call the Gulf oil leak “doomsday for the Gulf of Mexico.”

The situation is so dire that thesaurus publishers sent out emergency appeals to distinguished wordsmiths for new synonyms for “rant” and “ruin.” We exhausted the synonyms we’ve got. The doomcriers, if not necessarily the Gulf of Mexico, have clearly been having a bad hair day.

But now dawns the recognition, as nearly always happens in the wake of disasters, calamities, catastrophes, etc., that maybe the politicians and the mainstream media have been guilty of a little contagious hyperbole. Exaggeration has been the order of the day. But maybe the end has not been so nigh as we were confidently told it was. Some unexpected media voices are (gulp) saying so.

“The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak,” writes Michael Grunwald in Time magazine. “It’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential damage is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage.”

Jacqueline Michel, a geological chemist who is coordinating the federal assessment of damages to the shores of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, says the impact of the oil spill has been “much, much less” than anticipated in the first days after the well blew out. Her survey teams have found only about 350 acres of oily marshland — sad and disheartening, but only a fraction of the 15,000 acres of Louisiana wetlands that slip into the sea each year. Wildlife-recovery workers have so far found only three dead oil-soaked mammals along the coast that they can attribute to the spill. The harsh restrictions on fishing the Gulf for shrimp, imposed with hysterical fanfare when we were told the universe as we know it would soon vanish, are being lifted.

Ivor van Heerden, a one-time wildlife professor at Louisiana State University who’s working now on the cleanup, says bluntly: “There’s just no data to suggest that this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making [British Petroleum] look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts. There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

The hype and hysteria are not necessarily an expression of bad faith, though the Obama administration clearly doesn’t want to let this crisis go to waste. Its stubborn resistance to softening restrictions on drilling in the Gulf, safe or not and despite the protests of coastal residents and a federal judge, sounds more like its relentless campaign to downsize America to make it more like France and Lower Volta than a genuine concern for safety.

Ken Salazar, the secretary of the Interior, insists that a “pause” in Gulf drilling is “necessary” because the bureaucrats are tired, and besides, nobody knows what caused the spill. Who knows? It might have been a giant squid. After the House passed legislation to suspend the Salazar moratorium the government said it still wouldn’t change anything. (What do a bunch of congressmen know?) This is an administration that doesn’t listen to anyone but the criminally incompetent in the White House.

But the doomsday scenario about the recovery of the Gulf is rooted in the hubris of modern man, who can’t imagine that he’s not in control of the universe, that it’s up to him to patch up the dents and dinks in the Earth, to make it behave to human standards. Governments and citizens delude themselves when they think they can make a difference, says Robert Laughlin, a physicist and Nobel laureate at Stanford. Man can only nibble around the edges of disasters, as he should, but he shouldn’t imagine that it’s up to him to supervise nature. The crisis of climate change, if crisis it be, will be a walk in the park compared to threat Earth survived in its past. Whatever humans throw at it, he says in an essay in American Scholar magazine, Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way.

Man can help with his nibbling, but in the end, it’s Earth that will clean up man’s mess. Hype and hysteria won’t help much.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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