Sunday may be Earth Day, but I’ve been focused on another, sadder milestone: Friday, April 20, marked two years since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. Two hundred million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico that dark summer, and our national nightmare is far from over – a litany of recent reports suggests that the full ramifications of the spill are only just now emerging. In recognition of the very much ongoing tragedy, therefore, I hereafter declare that Earth Day 2012 has been renamed Gulf Day.
While the region’s beaches again look pristine, the spill continues to covertly wreak havoc upon the Gulf's marine life. An assessment conducted by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that resident dolphins were emaciated, cancerous, and missing critical hormones, perhaps contributing to their abnormally high stranding rates. Such ill effects are not bounded by water depth or trophic level: Deep sea corals near the Macondo well have also been “seriously harmed” by exposure to oil.
Most disturbingly, a report last week by Al Jazeera documented a bevy of horrifying defects in Gulf seafood, including crabs rotting from the inside out, shrimp born without eyes or shells, and fish covered in festering lesions. Numerous scientists blamed the mutations on the twin scourges of the Gulf: the oil itself, and, more insidiously, the dispersants that BP used to conceal the extent of the spill. Corexit, the toxic chemical that BP sprayed most profligately, is mutagenic, meaning that it’s capable of inflicting cascading damages upon generations of crustaceans and fish. Defective shrimp and crabs may be the first symptoms of altered genomes.
After BP sealed the blown-out well and stanched the plume of oil in September of 2010, the media largely declared the crisis abated and moved on to fresher stories. Far from being over, however, these recent reports suggest that the Deepwater Horizon’s worst damage may be yet to come. Often, the full effects of pollutants take years to manifest, and decades to ameliorate. The last PCBs were manufactured in 1979, but they contaminate the Hudson River to this day. Alaskan fisheries that were robust before the Exxon Valdez spill still haven’t returned to viability.
Remediating pollution requires constant vigilance and permanent management. But the notion of long-term environmental harm doesn’t always square with Earth Day, which encourages one-time actions that create the impression of accomplishment. Millions of people will plant trees and scoop up plastic on Sunday, but how many will permanently overhaul their lives to reduce their personal carbon emissions? Producing meaningful environmental change requires years of hard and frequently frustrating work. Earth Day is only effective insofar as it provides a gateway to more comprehensive engagement with ecological issues; if it merely serves to cleanse the consciences of tree-planters, it’s a failure.
Worse than its ephemerality, though, is the way that Earth Day has been coopted and corrupted by the very companies that it was designed to repudiate. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, wasn’t a celebration of green consumerism, but rather a denouncement of the rapacious corporatism that led to catastrophes like the burning of the Cuyahoga and the Santa Barbara oil spill. That initial Earth Day was closely connected to the anti-war movement; like the Vietnam protests, Earth Day fundamentally arose as an objection to the status quo. Earth Day was angry.
Even two years on, no company deserves our collective anger quite like BP – not just for allowing the spill to happen, but for spraying known toxins into one of our nation’s most important food sources. And it’s not only the fish that are suffering the repercussions of BP’s poison: human residents of the Gulf are now complaining of a wide range of maladies, from seizures to respiratory problems. Given that BP jeopardized human lives to perpetuate falsehoods and minimize its liability, rage remains an appropriate response, as well as a fitting commemoration of the original Earth Day’s spirit.
Unfortunately, anger directed toward corporations has little room in the modern Earth Day agenda: It’s an American holiday, after all, and so automatically an occasion for buying lots of disposable things. Earth Day has become a greenwashing bonanza, whereby the country’s worst polluters rebrand discounted products as “eco-friendly” to lure well-intentioned shoppers. Save the planet – shop at Target!
But this commodity fetishism, no matter how green its packaging, is fundamentally inimical to Earth Day’s spirit: It’s the consumer ethos, more than any risky source of hydrocarbons, that endangers our planet. After all, BP wouldn’t have been so eager to drill through 13,000 feet of rock at the bottom of the ocean if consumers hadn’t been ready to slurp the oil up. Every product, no matter how sustainably sourced, burns fossil fuels when it’s manufactured and when it’s transported. What better way to celebrate Gulf Day, then, than to buy nothing at all?