The media and the sciences… They mix like oil and water. Commercial media seeks narrative personas, two-sided conflicts and attention-grabbing images of disaster. The sciences demand careful process, time to uncover truths and talented storytellers to achieve a big audience.
I'm writing this column from Louisiana where I've come to document the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill -- "a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," according to President Obama. BP is flooding the gulf with more dispersants than ever used before in U.S. waters. Large plumes of oil are sinking below the surface. This disaster is not like a 'typical' hurricane, which allows media to witness destruction almost immediately. This disaster is more like a cancer. You don't really see it or feel it until the doctor tells you that cancer has metastasized through your body and you only have a few months to live.
The commercial media is flooding the public with different representations of the spill -- the "biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced" (Carol Browner), or a "tiny" amount of fluid spilled into a relatively big ocean (BP’s Tony Hayward). But not much science has hit the press so far. At a meeting this week sponsored by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), representatives from local government, seafood and the oil industry shared lots of truths, untruths and important data about the BP oil spill with scientists.
Concern was raised about Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser’s idea for building giant sand berms on the barrier islands to soak up the oil. (Just approved by federal govt.) President Obama and CNN’s Anderson Cooper have empathized with Nungesser’s idea (and his frustration with BP). But building a wall of sand is not an option that has been vetted by many officials with much of a scientific background on wetlands. Scientists at the BTNEP meeting were laughing a bit about the sand berm idea and irritated that they can’t seem to break through the media/political wall that is pushing to accomplish some kind of project ASAP in order to save the wetlands from the oil (and win voter approval).
Media Image: giant wall of sand blocking oil from washing up on wetlands
Probable Reality: sand berms get washed away by the first big storm (like a sand castle on the beach)
Better Researched Options: rebuilding interior marsh of islands to keep from washing away; more skimmers and boom.
These scenarios were batted back and forth at the BTNEP meeting along with frustration about the media. One woman commented on the importance of community and of not allowing commercial media interests to pit local players against one another — a painful process that Exxon-Valdez survivors and marine biologist Riki Ott have described with the Alaskan spill.
Whether or not the berms actually protect the wetlands from gushing oil that reaches the surface, no one truly understands the long-term health risks of dispersed oil molecules contained in the water system. What might the spill mean for the fresh water supply that comes from the bayous? What are the health risks to children from oil or dispersant-tainted food, water or air? Will these public fears ruin the Louisiana seafood industry?
On Grand Isle beach -- currently closed and covered with clean-up crews -- I watched as a young family was interviewed on camera. The mother talked about learning to walk on the beach and how her children had also learned here. Then she described fishing as a young girl with her father, who was standing next to her, and she broke down a bit.
The death of the environment is not unlike the death of a person. Both involve the death of shared experiences and a bittersweet relationship to memory. Let's hope that oil and water can mix without destroying each other…