20100609-re-0101Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

In every way, the spill is a disaster because of people.

It’s rare that this publication devotes consecutive issues to the same topic. We did it five years ago for a hurricane. We do it now.

Contemporary Gulf Coast history spans either side of a cleft marked Aug. 29, 2005. Pre-K and Post-K. And so it will be with this. We will settle on a name, like we did for 9-11.

Spill is commonly used. But this isn’t a spill. And leak doesn’t seem to convey it either. Those words are puny. This is big.

Common usage will settle it, and common usage is central to this catastrophe.

Last week I sat down with Don Davis, a retired geography professor at LSU who has spent more than half his life studying Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and its complex, exotic culture. Davis’s new book, Washed Away: The Invisible Peoples of Louisiana’s Wetlands, traces the history of this land and its inhabitants. It was purely and wildly coincidental that the book was released as this Faustian tragedy unfolds. And while Davis is a geographer by degree, it is the wetlands’ people — the common users — that drive his perception of the coast. This event, this spill, wouldn’t be a disaster without people.

“The coast is not a place; it’s a process, it’s a geologic process. It becomes a place when people live there,” he told me. “When you have people involved, or the way they make their living, that changes everything. If it happens on some stretch of the coast where there’s nobody living for 200 or 300 miles, then it’s an annoyance. We may have a moral obligation to clean it up, as we should. But as soon as you have the human factor, everything changes.”


Davis’s observation is a super species of the old “if a tree falls in the forest” brain teaser. Physicists may debate it over beer, but it also drills to the core of this very serious matter: What is the coast, the wetlands, the estuaries without people? People ascribe value to a thing; people make commodities out of raw materials.

And the human factor, like human nature, has a dark side; that is to say, this spill wouldn’t have happened without people, and not just on a micro level of making bad decisions, ignoring warnings and cutting corners, but in macro as well.

Stand beside Johnston Street one morning during rush hour, or along Camellia Boulevard or Ambassador Caffery, and watch the traffic whisk by. In the majority of the vehicles, nearly half of which are thirsty SUVs and pickup trucks, is a single person. A driver. No passengers. Thirteen miles to the gallon for one fat ass.

Now look out to the Gulf. That black, wet tumor metastasizing along the coast and in the marshes? That’s ours. We can no more marvel at it than a smoker who sees the x-ray of his blackened, cancerous lungs.

And now the Gulf Coast, and Lafayette in particular, faces grim alternatives: shut down drilling until we’re confident it can be done safely, thereby running the risk of wrecking our economy, or resume deepwater drilling and risk far greater environmental catastrophe.

We should be mad as hell at BP; it has an abysmal safety record. But we should be mad as hell at ourselves, too. Like the unfortunate Dr. Faust, we made a deal with the devil. Payment is due.

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