Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 2:19 PM
On April 20, 2010 — one year ago this week — the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig operated by BP off the southeast coast of Louisiana, exploded, opening a sea-floor gusher that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster that unfolded — some five million barrels of oil would be spilled in the three months before the well was capped — was a gut-wrenching reminder of how profoundly American dependence on fossil fuels affects our marine environments. Yet a mere six months later, after only modest regulatory reforms, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling; the event had already begun to recede from public consciousness. And so we wasted — along with much else — the chance to have a larger, more searching conversation about the impact of our actions and choices on the health of the ocean.
If we are to tilt toward a sustainable world, we've got to show more than fleeting concern for marine habitats. In the words of oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle: "The world is blue." Oceans cover most of the earth's surface — 130,000 square miles — at an average depth of 2.5 miles, forming its largest life zone and serving as the primary regulator of planetary chemistry. They are an important source of protein for the world's almost seven billion people. Our environmental health and indeed our survival — our systems of food production, energy, transportation, temperature regulation, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and more —are dependent upon the earth's waters.
As planners and designers, we need to take up the mantle of blue urbanism. Just as green urbanism challenges us to rethink sustainability at the city scale, blue urbanism asks us to re-imagine ourselves as citizens of a blue planet. How can we become better stewards of the world's oceans?
In October 2010, the Census of Marine Life released the results of a ten-year study of marine biodiversity, which significantly increased estimates of the quantity of ocean life. Genetic analysts believe there are at least one million distinct marine species and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of microbe species. Less than five percent of the sea has been explored and only one-quarter of its species discovered, but already we know that marine environments are more biologically diverse than terrestrial environments at the phylum level. But as we begin to appreciate this biodiversity, we need also to recognize that it is in peril. We are rapidly approaching unprecedented tipping points that, if unheeded, will lead inexorably to systemic failure. Hypoxic dead zones surround river mouths and coastal areas, industrial fishing technologies are rapidly depleting fish populations and degrading habitats, and massive amounts of plastic waste and chemical toxins are polluting marine ecosystems from mangroves to intertidal zones to the deep sea. Carbon emissions are changing the basic chemistry of the planet, raising ocean temperatures and altering acidity levels, which in turn are endangering coral reefs and other marine life. The human reach is so great that it threatens even the vast and remote deep pelagic zone, the area of the open ocean extending from three hundred feet below the surface to just above the ocean floor.
City Planning and Marine Sprawl
Until recently, cities have mostly evaded responsibility for the failure of ocean systems because it is difficult to visualize or quantify the offshore effects of urban life. Our city maps stop at the water's edge, even though the activities that support urban systems extend many miles beyond. In The Urban Whale, Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium have produced a fascinating map of terrestrial watersheds and offshore waters on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, showing areas of urban activity, including high boat traffic, shipping, fishing and dredging. Mechanical noise from ships near port cities has produced "acoustic smog" so thick that the chance of two North Atlantic right whales hearing each other is 10 percent of what it was a century ago. This kind of marine sprawl rarely gets the attention within our profession that terrestrial sprawl does...
Read the rest of “Blue Urbanism: The City and the Ocean” by Timothy Beatley at
Image by Plastic Pollution Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 1:34 PM
As the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf approaches we look to some of our most trusted sources to get us up to date on all things BP and the Gulf. Below are some of the nominees for this year’s Utne Independent Press Awards in the environmental and political categories with their most recent coverage of the oil spill, one year later.
Let’s start at Audubon Magazine for a little history on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, by way of an excerpt from A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout by Carl Safina (who also appears in the latest issue of Utne Reader). Even though we know how it all ends, Safina’s build up to the blowout is tense and makes you anxious while reading:
A churning drill bit sent from a world of light and warmth and living beings. More than three miles under the sea surface, more than two miles under the seafloor. Eternal darkness. Unimaginable pressure. The drill bit has met a gas pocket. That tiny pinprick. That pressure. Mere bubbles, a mild fizz from deep within. A sudden influx of gas into the well. Rushing up the pipe. Gas expanding like crazy. Through the open gates on the seafloor. One more mile to the sea surface.
The always feisty Mother Jones doesn’t beat around the bush with their latest blog post about the spill: “10 Reasons to Still Be Pissed Off About the BP Oil Disaster.” The all-too-clear-but-all-too-easily-forgotten reasons include, “BP is gunning to get back to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico” even though “People are sick” and “Fish and other sea life in the Gulf are still struggling after the disaster.” Meanwhile, “GOP House members want more drilling off all our coasts with less environmental review” and “Congress hasn’t changed a single law on oil and gas drilling in the past year.” As promised, the list of 10 will piss you off. (Also, if you missed Mother Jones’ September/October 2010 issue with the cover story “The BP Cover-Up” it’s worth revisiting now.)
And if that’s not enough to piss you off, add this to the mix from The Nation: “BP’s Oil Spill Tax Credit Matches EPA’s Entire Annual Budget.” While the oil giant’s tax credit claim may be old news, The Nation highlights the protests of US Uncut, a group focused on corporate tax breaks and attacks on the public service sector:
Thousands of young voters rallied at the White House this Tax Day to demand President Obama stand up to Big Polluters and make them pay their fair share. During the day of action, a flash mob, led by US Uncut’s Carl Gibson, successfully shut down a BP gas station in response to the company’s $9.9 billion tax credit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which nearly matches the EPA’s entire annual operating budget.
Conveniently, OnEarth has all of its coverage of the Gulf oil spill in one spot—Disaster in the Gulf—including the most recent post from Ian Somerhalder (the actor most known for his role as ‘Boone’ on Lost).
A year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, dozens of dead baby dolphins are washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico; oyster populations are devastated, crippling a multi-billion dollar industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with it; and Gulf residents continue to complain of lingering health problems that they believe were caused by the BP oil spill. Despite what you may read in the mainstream media, the oil has not gone away.
Finally, In These Timessums up the situation clearly and succinctly. Simply put, one year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history the “government and media may be moving on from [the] aftermath of the Deepwater disaster, but the scars left behind by the spill are still raw and festering.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention here the story “Fish with the King” that we recently reprinted from the excellent online magazine of politics and arts, Guernica, about the devastation the oil spill has had on the fishing communities in the Gulf.
Source: Audubon Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, OnEarth, In These Times, Guernica
Image by lagohsep, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 30, 2010 5:08 PM
It’s easy to avert your eyes from disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil rig spill, but for people willing to hold their gaze and witness our oil addiction’s worst side effects, there’s plenty of excellent media coverage of this slowly unfolding tragedy. Among our favorites:
The New York Times published an interactive map detailing the wildlife that could be at risk. Audubon’s blog The Perch also covers the wildlife angle, including not just birds but whales, turtles, and sharks.
Agence France Presse (via Grist) reports that Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit against rig operator BP, accusing it of negligence, seeking millions of dollars in damages for the catch they’re going to lose.
The Houston Chronicle reports that investigators had been noticing more oil rigs having “blowouts” during a procedure in which they cement the walls of undersea wells.
Grist has ongoing coverage—much from Agence France Presse—and commentary, including a piece by Keith Harrington speculating that the accident may lead to a better climate bill. Harrington points out that before Obama approved new drilling, “10 coastal state senators wrote a letter to their colleagues John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressing the trio to keep expanded offshore drilling out of their now floundering climate and energy package.”
At The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes, “If the Democrats do not use this disaster to advance the energy bill ASAP, they may miss a critical moment to escape the oil addiction even George W. Bush acknowledged in his final years.”
Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes thinks Sullivan has it only “half right,” though: “It is a critical moment that Democrats are insane not to use, but the KGL [Kerry-Graham-Lieberman] energy bill isn’t the plan we need—it’s the least-terrible bill that was believed to have a chance of passing in the Senate. Now, with this ongoing crisis changing the political climate, there should be an opening for a better bill.”
Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones noted that political winds were already shifting: “On Friday, environmental groups, many of which had indicated a willingness to accept some offshore drilling in a climate and energy bill in exchange for components like a price on carbon pollution and a renewable energy standard, were rallying in opposition to Obama’s plan. “We were willing to accept some new drilling, but this changes everything,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. “I can’t imagine there’s going to be any offshore drilling in this bill.”
Sources: New York Times, Audubon, Grist, Houston Chronicle, The Atlantic, Mother Jones
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