I don't know how many column inches have been given over to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) disaster but not many told the stories of ordinary people. While the environmental impact is often prominent in oil spill reporting, initially at least, the people affected rarely feature. Seeing Look Left Look Right's production of NOLA at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last Wednesday (15 April 2012) was the next best thing to interviewing these people yourself.
NOLA, a local acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana, is a verbatim play based on interviews carried out since December 2010 with various people affected by DWH. And it was brilliant! Four actors played various characters including rig workers who managed to escape, people who fished for a living, those who helped clean oiled birds and those who lost loved ones.
One character, a local doctor, opined "you can find out all about how pelicans and shrimp and fish and whales were affected but not about the people". It's true. In many disasters, from earthquakes to war, it is only the impact on people we hear about while associated environmental damage goes unreported. Yet we don't we hear about the impacts of DWH on people's livelihoods and their health, even although they continue today.
Another character said that if the spill had been off the coast of Angola, it would have been "a one-day wonder” as far as media coverage goes. This character was anonymous, the only one to feature in the play without a name and occupation ascribed, making an old cynic like me suspect they were from BP, or at least from the industry. Let's replace 'Angola' with 'Russia' for a moment and see if I am being cynical.
At 4.9 million barrels, the DWH explosion is often described as the "largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry", beaten only by the deliberate release of around 6 million barrels by Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991. So what about the 30 million barrels of oil spilled on land each year by the Russian oil industry? This oil, which amounts to several DWH disasters, hasn't even made it to "one-day wonder" status. Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland, suffocating plants and animals, and forcing people to abandon the area as food and water supplies are poisoned. Perhaps the DWH spill was merely in the right part of the world to be noticed.
Back at the post-play debate, my co-debater was Rob Edwards, an environmental journalist who writes for the Sunday Herald. The first question from the audience was whether the impact of 4.9 million barrels of oil was worse than the gradual pollution which would have been caused if that oil had made it to market. A good question which I answered by extolling the virtues of the notion to 'leave it in the ground', not that we are likely to do that any time soon.
The discussion moved on to the role of the arts in getting social and environmental messages out there. Yes, of course a play like NOLA will reach new audiences with rarely heard voices but is it really information we lack? Is there really a story, once told, which will wake us up to the havoc we are wreaking on the Earth?
And, inevitably, there was a 'what we can do?' question. I wish I knew. We talk about tackling climate change and weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels but there's nothing quite like oil. The popular solutions tend to be those that allow us to go on living as we do now. In addition, everything we hold dear requires the economy to grow, which requires more energy to process more natural resources to sell to us, the 'consumers', to keep the economic merry-go-round turning. So one thing we can do is to stop buying new stuff! But that's a drop in the ocean. A look at the oil industry sees us pushing the limits to record-breaking depths and in increasingly hostile locations, where the potential for future disasters can only rise. How will the Arctic fare when that pesky ice melts and drilling for oil and gas escalates off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and elsewhere in Arctic Russia - and will those tales be told?
You can join Greenpeace and 'Save the Arctic' here