Oil Spill Hysteria
The Gulf of Mexico suffered remarkably little damage. Why were so many so willing to believe otherwise?
Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
Time magazine on May 17 featured its own cover story on the “catastrophe” in the Gulf. Time offered readers horrifying images of “an uncontrolled gusher with economic, political and social consequences as far as the eye can see. The slick—a morphing mass of at least 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq km) as of May 3, and changing every day,” the story continued, “threatens to kill wildlife and wreck the fishing industry along nearly 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline.” Once again, unnamed “scientists worry that ocean currents could carry the oil around the tip of Florida to the beaches of the East Coast,” potentially devastating the Keys and the Everglades.
The media actually relied less on marine biologists and oil spill experts for their information and more on environmental groups. The Gulf “disaster” offered multiple potential benefits to these groups, including the possibility of desired policy changes. The executive director of the Sierra Club declared, “This will kill any plan to expand offshore drilling for the next decade.” Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation saw the spill as a powerful message that “we need to address the underlying issue, and that’s our dependence on oil” and other fossil fuels, with their greenhouse emissions and other environmental harms.
America’s political leadership also contributed to the mass anxiety. President Obama came to office with close personal knowledge of matters such as inner city schools but less of the environment. Ill-served by his advisers, the president on June 15 declared the spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” He compared it to “an earthquake or a hurricane” such as San Francisco or Katrina but said it could be even worse because “it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”
Could the Gulf region simply have been extra-ordinarily lucky? No doubt there was an element of luck. The marine organisms consumed the oil faster than was generally expected. Even so, a scientifically accurate and honest assessment on May 1 would have read something like this:
Instead, America treated the Gulf spill almost as a religious catharsis. The message was that we have sinned against nature, and God is justly punishing us. Whatever the facts, such messages can resonate powerfully. America is unusually religious for a modern nation, and some of its religions, such as environmentalism, are secular. As always, there are many people—the Elmer Gantrys of our time—who are happy to feed the public’s fears.
Robert H. Nelson is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland, a senior fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and the author, most recently, of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.
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