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Five Years after Deepwater Horizon: The Mississippi River and the Gulf

Five years ago, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and starting an oil leak into the ocean that lasted for nearly three months and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Information sources about the disaster abound; the Wikipedia entry offers a starting point, but please note the caveat at the top of the article about its limitations.

As the damage became known, through photos of oil-soaked wildlife and testimony of people most directly affected by the incident, the fragility of the Louisiana Gulf Coast became clearer.  Groups such as the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and America’s Wetland Foundation became increasingly visible with their accounts of how land subsidence and sea level rise posed a dire threat to southern Louisiana.

The Mississippi River was seen in many of these discussions as integrally involved in the future of the Louisiana coast.  Opinions differed however, as to whether diversions of river water would be the best (only?) way to build land and reverse land loss.

No one has questioned the need to restore the Gulf Coast, for a host of very good reasons.  Most of them are contained in the very rich web presence of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta campaign.

Last weekend’s symposium “Nature 3x: Where is Nature Now” did, however, raise the question of whether it is appropriate to speak of “restoring” conditions in places like coastal Louisiana, or nearly anywhere else on earth, for that matter.  For one thing, a changing climate means that ecological conditions literally cannot be “restored” to what they were 100 years ago, or 300 years ago when the French established the city of New Orleans.

What, then, should we be thinking if not about “restoration”?

According to Kate Orff, founder and design director of the design firm SCAPE, the first task of designers is to help people to actually see the landscape around them, rather than just what they think the landscape is doing.  In her book Petrochemical America (with photographs by Richard Misrach) and at a talk given during the “Nature 3x” symposium, Orff argues that we live in an “energy landscape.”  The lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast are honeycombed with pipeline routes, canals, transmission lines, all serving the “energy coast” and the “chemical corridor” that is the Mississippi River all the way upstream from the mouth to Baton Rouge.  Lest we think that changing this landscape, reducing its pollution and damage, is simply a matter of “getting rid of fossil fuels,” Orff reminds us that the polymers, plastics, and synthetic materials developed and shipped throughout this region are all things that make up the fundamental materials of our lives.

In this Mississippi River, the post-mythic, dystopian River Styx, the representative figure isn’t Huck Finn “lighting out for the territory” ahead of the “sivilizin'” influences of Aunt Polly.  Here we are reminded of Pogo’s much darker view “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

So, then, where is Nature now?





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  1. Dermot GilleyApril 30, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    “… should we be thinking if not about “restoration” …” Well, certainly you should look at what had been there immediately prior to the Deepwater Horizon incident. If that stocktaking was ever done so that the prior conditions can be reliably diagnosed at all. Then you’d have two options, I should think: a) extrapolate the situation to what it would be today under the prevailing conditions if Deepwater Horizon had not happen. Then ask yourselves if that situation is worth spending money and (voluntary) resources on at all. Or b) ask yourselves what an “optimum” ideal situation would be, maybe make the whole region a model for future “restorative” efforts worldwide. This in the end might even pay for itself, and if it were through (sustainably managed) eco-tourism or through consulting fees paid by those who would like to copy the model (once it is proven successful).

  2. URLJune 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm

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