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The Catastrophe That Wasn’t: The Gulf Oil Spill in Perspective

Picture your neighbor’s pool.  Unless you live in Malibu, it’ll contain about 6,000 gallons.  That’s the “Gulf” for purposes of discussion.  Now go to your garage, get a quart of oil and pour it in when he’s not looking.  Pretty good sense of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, right?

Nope, not even close.  Put a drop of that oil onto a sheet of paper and carefully cut it in half.  Now do it again and toss that quarter of a drop into the deep end.  Even this quarter droplet (about the size of the comma in this sentence) is about 10% too large, but NOW you have a sense of what 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf looks like.[1]

Now that we’ve grappled with the issue of scale, let’s look at the aftermath of this ‘catastrophe.’  According to the government scientists, seventy-five percent of that sliver of a droplet has now evaporated, been eaten by microbes, skimmed or burnt. (This estimate is in dispute, but every day the released oil is being reduced to get to that figure, if not beyond it.)

Now, you’re going to need to borrow your kid’s microscope for the rest of this exercise….

“Ah,” says the ecologist in you, “but oil is like poison to an ecosystem, and so any amount is disproportionately harmful.”  Well, the science doesn’t agree, but let’s assume for the moment that you’re right.  Ignoring that the vast majority of this poison-oil has already been happily consumed by portions of this delicate ecosystem, let’s pretend that oil is to the Gulf what botulinum toxin is to man (really bad news, as it’s the deadliest substance known).  Distributed uniformly, oil would contaminate the water of the Gulf at a ratio of eight thousand millionths per gallon.  If the same concentration of botulinum existed in your swimming pool, you could safely spend the day in it without a second thought.[2]  Sure, oil is not distributed uniformly, but shrill cries about the “collapse” of the Gulf’s ecosystem imply that it effects are.  It is indeed true that every action has reverberating ecological consequences, but if we delude ourselves into thinking this means disintegration then we risk making poor policy choices.

Good Intentions, Good Analysis, Good Policy

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am firmly in the camp of those who think the Gulf ecosystem is a wonderful and valuable thing that we should never take for granted.  Furthermore, it’s not my intention here to dismiss or minimize BP’s bungle.  Neither am I suggesting cleanup shouldn’t continue with the utmost diligence.  After all, “scale” matters not one whit if that sliver of oil washes into your crab pots.  Legally, BP should be held to account for their negligence and must make whole anyone whose property or livelihood they have harmed.

But two lessons rise to the surface here.  The first is to never underestimate the power of ecosystems to absorb shocks and adapt to change.  While we should not treat Nature with reckless disregard, we should also not dishonor her by intimating that she stands in precarious balance, perennially on the brink of human-caused collapse.  As ecology continues to develop as a science, I expect that it will be the extraordinary resilience of natural systems that will become the prevailing acknowledgment.

The second lesson is that we must demand a sense of perspective when dealing with issues of environmental concern.  The natural inclination when faced with torrents of extremely focused media coverage is to extrapolate broadly to “the ecosystem” at large.  Hysteria and fear do not make for good policy, however.  An inability to properly understand ecological sensitivity leads to dire predictions which fuel misguided regulatory reaction.

For instance, President Obama’s intuition told him that, “everybody understands that when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation, but for future generations.”  A true statement, of course, since every action necessarily has “concrete implications.”  The question is, how big are these implications?  Do the imagined implications of this oil spill (foodweb collapse, fishery destruction, economic implosion of the Gulf Coast) warrant the sort of unwise knee-jerk decisions like the now-beleaguered six-month drilling moratorium which would have very surely precipitated vastly more destructive results?

The ecological implications of this spill, I submit, will be relatively transitory and minimal.  While conceding that “nobody really knows” the long-term effects, scientists generally agree that the sky isn’t falling.  Comparable “disasters” such as the 1991 Persian Gulf spill (in which the retreating Iraqi Army perpetrated the largest spill in history) or the Ixtoc 1 spill off the coast of Yucatan (which gushed 3.5 million barrels for 290 days) can give us clues.  In both cases, within three years the ecology had returned to pre-spill equilibrium.

It would not be naively optimistic to expect a significantly more rapid recovery in the Gulf: conditions lend themselves well to natural oil degradation and very little oil has ended up in the vibrant coastal regions where life mostly congregates.  It would be safe to assume that 99% of the spill’s effects (economic loss, fishery damage, species diversity/habitat loss) will have disappeared along with the oil in one year or less.

A Balanced Perspective, Please

Environmental issues are not “so important” that they must be left in the hands of the state to manage.  Mistakes happen and errors in judgment arise in both the private and the public sector.  The difference is that when they occur with backing from the state, they generally happen faster and more forcefully.  As a responsible society we need to demand a sense of perspective in our calls for “action” while simultaneously maintaining a healthy respect for the world we live in.


Paul Schwennesen holds an MA in government from Harvard University and a BS in History and Science (biology concentration) from the U.S. Air Force Academy. He recently completed a fellowship at the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana.  Having served six-years in the Air Force (including a deployment to Afghanistan), Paul separated as a Captain and is now a rancher in southern Arizona where he and his wife Sarah are raising two children amongst the cows and chickens. He can be reached at schwennesen@mac.com.

17 comments

1 rbradley { 08.25.10 at 8:39 am }

And the news from yesterday:

Paul Voosen, “Undersea Plume Vanishes, Degraded by Previously Unknown Bug,” E&E News, August 24, 2010.

“The Gulf of Mexico’s undersea oil plume is no more.

For nearly a month, scientists sampling the site of a deepwater plume stretching southwest from BP PLC’s failed well in the Gulf have been foiled. Their sensors have gone silent. Where once a vibrant — if diffuse — cloud of oil stretched for miles, 3,600 feet below the surface, there is now only ocean, and what seems to be the debris of a bacterial feeding frenzy.”

2 Chip Knappenberger { 08.25.10 at 9:40 am }

Rob,

Exactly. This “new microbe” that is voraciously feasting on the spilled oil is evidence of Paul’s “resilience of natural systems.”

The earth’s life forms didn’t get where they are today by rolling over and dying every time they were faced with some stressor (of which there have many over the eons of time–some sudden, some gradual).

-Chip

3 How bad was the Deepwater Horizon spill? | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen { 08.25.10 at 10:15 am }

[...] At Master Resource, Paul Schwennesen takes on oil spill alarmism: [...]

4 Jon Boone { 08.25.10 at 10:48 am }

The new microbe may have been introduced by extraterrestrials who felt sorry for the way humans are gouging the earth…. On the other hand, perhaps it is a new twist on the Gaia thesis, where the earth is a complex, interactive organism acting to maintain a preferred biogeochemical (even climatic) set point (or homeorhesis).

The James Boys–Lovelock and Cameron–have literally capitalized on the latter idea, while whole science fiction genres have cashed in on the former.

On the other hand, natural selection is a wondrous process engaged by the opportunism of predator and prey in all kinds of conditions. Many thanks, Paul, for this splendid writing, highlighted for me by the following passage:

“While we should not treat Nature with reckless disregard, we should also not dishonor her by intimating that she stands in precarious balance, perennially on the brink of human-caused collapse. As ecology continues to develop as a science, I expect that it will be the extraordinary resilience of natural systems that will become the prevailing acknowledgment.”

5 Random Nuclear Strikes » Putting the Oil Spill in perspective { 08.25.10 at 11:00 am }

[...] Since Phil mentioned it Picture your neighbor’s pool.  Unless you live in Malibu, it’ll contain about 6,000 gallons.  That’s the “Gulf” for purposes of discussion.  Now go to your garage, get a quart of oil and pour it in when he’s not looking.  Pretty good sense of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, right? [...]

6 Alan F { 08.25.10 at 12:01 pm }

As with geo-vents, life adapted to these “hostile” environs long before we began stumbling and bumbling about. We’re intelligent enough to generate a lot of white noise and imbecilic enough to imagine some hidden meaning to it.

7 Damned Skeptic { 08.25.10 at 12:42 pm }

Since you mentioned it, has it actually been established that negligence by BP employees led to the blow out? I don’t think it matters in regards to BP’s financial responsibility for cleanup and compensation for those injured, but since people were crying negligence before anyone had determined the cause of the blow out, I’m curious if that determination has now been made.

8 The Catastrophe That Wasn’t » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog { 08.25.10 at 1:28 pm }

[...] Read more . . . [...]

9 Pat Cahalan { 08.25.10 at 5:37 pm }

Mr. Schwennesen, a couple of notes:

Comparing complex systems via analogy is always fraught with peril, and you’ve illustrated a couple of those problems very well in this post.

First, there’s the correctness of the members of the analogy. Yes, you can drop a corresponding concentration of botulism into your swimming pool and go swimming safely.

You could not, however, drop a corresponding concentration of botulism into your own body and necessarily expect to experience no ill effects. An ecosystem compares much more directly to an organism than a pool.

Second, scaling issues when discussing impacts on complex systems are often counter-intuitive.

The earth’s crust is 0.02727 % uranium. For virtually any practical measure comparing the mass of the crust to a couple hundred pounds of uranium, the significant digits drop off the end of the scale and the average sensible person would scratch that off as inconsequential. And yet, put that couple hundred pounds in the right place under the right conditions, you get one hell of a consequence.

Additional side note: your link to the science supporting an implicit claim is broken. You also don’t explain how science supporting one point is good solid evidence to take into account, but scientists at Auburn University are “shrill criers” in another. Either evidence provided by scientists is credible or it isn’t; you don’t get to claim that it’s good when it supports your position and garbage when it doesn’t.

“It would be safe to assume that 99% of the spill’s effects (economic loss, fishery damage, species diversity/habitat loss) will have disappeared along with the oil in one year or less.”

This is a highly debatable point, by the links that you yourself provide in this article.

10 Hollando { 08.26.10 at 3:28 am }

@ Pat

I would debate your points thusly:

Unlike an organism, the gulf ecosystem maintains no homeostasis, and it cannot be described as having a lifecycle for the oil spill to interrupt.
I’d say the pool analogy was more apt.

And as for concentrations, you’ve illustrated your point with one of the handful of positive feedback reactions observed in nature – it is self evident that the concentration of a spill of oil has no chance whatsoever of going critical.

11 The Gulf oil spill in perspective | Cranach: The Blog of Veith { 08.27.10 at 4:02 am }

[...] via The Catastrophe That Wasn’t: The Gulf Oil Spill in Perspective — MasterResource. [...]

12 Maintaining Perspective–The Gulf Oil Situation | Lutheran in NJ { 08.27.10 at 6:22 am }

[...] Gulf Oil Situation Posted on August 27, 2010 by bobherring2009 I came across this article from Paul Schwennesen about this year’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. There is a lot of food [...]

13 Paul { 08.28.10 at 11:14 am }

@ Pat

I appreciate your commentary, but feel obligated to rebut:
I get it. I recognize the importance of relative concentrations, and it is indeed a big deal if the oil “washes into your crab pots.” My larger point, since it’s the one being trumpeted, is about the ecosystem as a whole. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t the dire catastrophe that many of the misanthropes would like it to be… And as an aside, even if you dropped the botulinum equivalent of the oil spill right into your eye, the effects would be negligible (given, among other things, the intolerance of botulinum to contend with an oxygen-rich environment). The analogy, while certainly not perfect, is in fact surprisingly strong. The ecosystem of the Gulf is not teetering toward destruction, in fact it’s hardly been perturbed by most honest accounts.
I’m willing to lay a significant bet (how about $1000?) in the best tradition of Simon and Ehrlich, that the Gulf will be practically unscathed in one year. Anyone care to take it on? We’d have to agree to a set of clearly measured, fair parameters for ecological health first, but it might be a great exercise in honest debate. Maybe the doomsdayers and the naysayers could create a joint pool to bet on the outcome?…

14 wes in MT { 08.31.10 at 9:46 am }

Excellent article. With the back and forth about who’s study is valid and which university is “shrill”, just remember that the vast majority of of the university departments rely on grants and subsidies -hell, which do not? – so much skepticism is to be extended in their direction, not to mention that gaia worship (environmentalism) has corrupted the majority of the lot.

15 So there’s been another explosion in the Gulf of Mexico « Pithy Title Goes Here { 09.02.10 at 4:29 pm }

[...] to mention it when I first read it over at Random Nuclear Strikes, here’s a description of how much oil was spilt into the gulf in the first oil spill of the year (and keep in mind that if any spills out of this one, it will be [...]

16 THE OIL SPILL WAS HOW BIG? « Wings of the Wind { 09.05.10 at 9:08 pm }
17 Cooler Heads Digest 27 August 2010 | GlobalWarming.org { 09.13.10 at 2:19 pm }

[...] The Gulf Spill in Perspective Paul Schwennesen. MasterResource.org, 25 August 2010 [...]

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