More than an oil spill

We may well be living with the consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill for the rest of the 21st century. But judging by past environmental disasters, the spill also has the potential to reinvigorate the environmental movement going forward. For more than a century, ecological crises have often strengthened environmental movements.

Take the fight over preserving the scenic Hetch Hetchy Valley just outside Yosemite National Park. The biggest environmental battle of naturalist John Muir’s life was one that he lost — the fight to keep the city of San Francisco from erecting a dam on the Tuolumne River and flooding Hetch Hetchy.

The very idea of it appalled Muir: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature,” Muir wrote at the time. “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated in the heart of man.”


But although the dam was approved by Congress in 1913 and the valley ultimately destroyed, the fight helped embolden a fledgling environmental movement, and the memory of Hetch Hetchy became a rallying cry for future struggles.

In south Florida’s Everglades, too, it was crisis that prompted calls for protecting the region. In the early part of the century, vast tracts of the Everglades’ subtropical wetlands were dammed and drained for development and agriculture. During the 1930s, Miami newspaper columnist Marjory Stoneman Douglas supported such development as necessary for south Florida. But in the mid-1940s, when devastating fires swept through the region, she had a change of heart.

“The whole Everglades was burning,” she wrote in “The Everglades: River of Grass.” “What had been a river of grass and sweet water that had given meaning and life and uniqueness to this whole enormous geography through centuries in which man had no place here was made, in one chaotic gesture of greed and ignorance and folly, a river of fire.”

The fires, and Douglas’ book, turned the tide of public opinion and galvanized the efforts of those who wanted to preserve the natural splendor of the region. Today, more than 60 years later, the Everglades restoration movement is close to finalizing the purchase of lands necessary to restore water flow.

By far the most famous catastrophe to spur change was the November 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, which gave birth to a generation of activists who went on to organize direct action, file lawsuits and help pass the nation’s fundamental environmental laws, including a moratorium on offshore oil drilling along the Pacific and North Atlantic coasts.

Of course, not all environmental disasters have spurred such activism. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, for example, destroyed fisheries and fouled pristine bays and estuaries. But because it was seen as stemming from negligence on the captain’s part along with a solvable technical problem — namely that oil tankers should have double hulls — it led to few calls for more systemic protections.

Whether or not the current gulf spill sparks renewed environmental activism will depend on how it is scrutinized. If its causes are defined narrowly — focusing on the need, say, for a better drill, a better cutoff valve — then the broader movement is unlikely to be spurred to greater action.

Certainly the first focus needs to be containing the flow of oil, but long-term solutions will require examining the disaster more broadly and questioning the wisdom of drilling in the ocean at all. Offshore drilling in deep water may seem technically feasible if each piece of technology is viewed separately, but viewed as a system, the operation will always be prone to unforeseen accidents.

This is why environmentalists should focus on the big picture coming out of this disaster. Ocean drilling puts the nation’s fisheries and coastal communities at high risk, and we must ask whether doing so in the name of oil is wise.

On issues of restoration, too, the problems must be broadly defined. Cleanup should not entail merely removing oil from the surface. Truly restoring gulf wetlands and coastal waters should be the goal.

And the United States needs to quicken its transition to solar and wind energy, reducing dependency on oil.

It’s too early to say whether the gulf spill will give a new impetus to the environmental movement, but it might. Although the George W. Bush administration dismantled protections, and the Obama administration has been a disappointment, many millions of Americans still strongly support the environmental movement. Moreover, our society has changed since the Exxon Valdez disaster. Groups within most American religious denominations — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish — now support some version of green theology, on the principle that Earth is God’s sacred creation and must be protected. Popular culture also shows growing environmental awareness, as in James Cameron’s “Avatar,” an allegory about the dangers of destroying what is sacred in nature. And the nation’s hunters and fishers have become more involved in protecting wild lands and waters.

All told, a broad-based coalition could motivate politicians to pass visionary environmental legislation and make the gulf spill’s legacy a historical turning point.

James William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and the author, most recently, of “A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature.”