The nation’s sacrifice zone, part I

Gulf Coast wetlands loss received a burst of exposure in national media stories last week.Hip Hip, Hooray!

While each story had a different angle, each discussed the tragic disappearance of Louisiana’s coast. Then, predictably, they all compared the issue to the BP/Macondo oil disaster. Coastal loss was declared to be a decades-long problem of wide scope and undisputed severity, while the  now-capped oil gusher was described as being perhaps less cataclysmic than originally feared.

So what’s the downside?

Well, in a better world, contrasting the mega-problem of wetlands loss to the oil disaster would provide illuminating context to a national audience. Millions who had followed the oil gusher saga on a daily basis would learn that the disappearing Gulf Coast will still need saving even after the oil has cleared. Many might say “Wow, there’s an even bigger coastal issue than this oil spill– who knew?”

In a better world, that is.

But instead of educating people about a crucial issue that will determine Louisiana’s future, the news stories that discussed coastal loss were quickly appropriated to suit a political agenda– often by pundits who seemed eager to minimize the oil gusher’s damage. Many conservative sites bypassed quotes in the articles about “the real slow-motion ecological calamity” of coastal loss, in order to downplay the BP oil disaster and engage in political score-keeping. With few exceptions,  progressives let conservatives frame the debate, and ignored the larger issue of coastal restoration in order to exchange partisan fire about whether Rush Limbaugh was “right” about the oil damage.

So while it was initially gratifying to see more national attention paid to Louisiana’s coastal crisis, it was sickening to watch pundits ignore a serious issue in order to further their narrow, short-term agendas. Six months from now, these same pundits won’t be linking back to the articles to remind people about wetlands loss. No, they’ll have moved on to the next momentary outrage. But right now it suits them fine to link to these pieces merely as a way of diminishing the oil spill. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but this one hits close to home. Ever closer to home, actually.

Here are excerpts from some of the national stories which mentioned coastal loss and compared it to the spill:

First, Thomas Friedman’s 7/28 New York Times column:

Bob Marshall, an environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, put the BP spill in the right context when he wrote: “We need to remember this is a temporary problem on top of a permanent disaster. Long after BP’s oil is gone, we’ll still be fighting for survival against a much more serious enemy — our sinking, crumbling delta. Our coast is like a cancer patient who has come down with pneumonia. That’s serious, but curable. After the fever breaks, he’ll still have cancer.”

As usual, Bob Marshall is directly on point, and Friedman deserves credit for quoting him.

Then there was Michael Grunwald’s widely-criticized article in TIME magazine:

Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.”

For the record, when it comes to comparing the oil gusher (and all its potential long-term questions) I favor Marshall’s “pneumonia” analogy to Kemp’s “sunburn”.

Finally, there was an expansive front-page story in Friday’s New York Times about the history of the Gulf Coast “cancer”. It contains the quote of the week:

Even the coast itself — overdeveloped, strip-mined and battered by storms — is falling apart. The wildlife-rich coastal wetlands of Louisiana, sliced up and drastically engineered for oil and gas exploration, shipping and flood control, have lost an area larger than Delaware since 1930.

“This has been the nation’s sacrifice zone, and has been for 50-plus years,” said Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a nonprofit group. “What we’re seeing right now with BP’s crude is just a very photogenic representation of that.”

Regular Lens readers know I’ve banged the coastal restoration drum with regularity. I beIieve it is a larger issue than the oil “spill”. But various political factions should unite around this fact to solve a very serious national problem; they shouldn’t merely use it as a short-term political cudgel.

Was it just a silly dream to think political pundits could put aside their differences on “pneumonia “ in order to work together to cure “cancer”? Apparently. What will it take to inspire us to unite across ideological divides in order to save the wetlands that support America’s Energy Coast? Just think how many different political pundits read the above articles last week, all of which emphasized the overwhelming importance of coastal loss. It will be a while before this topic surfaces again in so many national publications during the same week. Yet while no one disagreed with the idea that coastal loss is a titanic problem, no one felt compelled to productively address the issue. They preferred to ignore it. There was no discussion, no critical synergy. Everyone opted to focus on the charged quotes that enabled them to argue about the oil spill for another day.

That’s a good example of losing the war in order to win a battle.


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  • Medium Jim


    As your most loyal reader, and a self-professed conservative wing-nut, I must whole-heartedly agree with your post. Using the oil spill to advance a political agenda is soulless and short sighted. Prominent voices on the right have been guilty of this, and they deserve being called out for it. But there are those on your side of the aisle who are equally guilty. While the oil was still gushing, Obama gave a speech at a California solar panel factory, using the spill to advance his “clean energy” agenda and cap and trade legislation. Others on the left have co-opted the spill to push a variety of causes: shuddering oil production along the Gulf, Florida and California, raising taxes on oil companies, pushing over-priced and under-desired Chevy Volts. I could go on. I fully expect some of your more liberal readers to respond by saying: “Yes, yes, but at least those liberal causes being advanced at the expense of the spill are inherently worthwhile….” OK, fine. I disagree. But fine, as long as we can all admit that each political faction has appropriated the spill to advance its short-term objectives.

    Respectfully and humbly yours, Medium Jim

  • Good for you, Medium Jim, for being such a loyal reader of Oyster’s work, given that you’re a self described conservative wing-nut. I wish more wing-nuts did the same. But I want to push back some against your claim that liberals and conservatives are equally guilty of exploiting the Macondo disaster for political gain. I agree that on the surface they may seem equivalent–after all, that’s how it’s almost always represented in news stories. I think the premise liberals are working from is the only way to protect ecosystems from future calamities like the Macondo gusher is to simply lesson our dependence on fossil fuels (and there’s that whole global warming thing). That’s the long term (though many of us think “long term” is too late). In the short term, I think most liberals would say we need much tighter safety controls on oil production until we can begin to transition to more environmentally safe fuels and technologies. That’s where solar panels and the Chevy Volts come in. Alone neither of these initiatives will be enough to get us where we want to go, but they’re a start and they do address the problem of carbon emissions (and, yeah, I know electric cars only transfer emissions to power plants). Cap and trade legislation, once a Republican idea, is simply a means to use market forces to reduce carbon emissions. You can disagree about whether these ideas will be effective. That’s fair. But to suggest these are nakedly political actions doesn’t seem fair. They’re explicitly aimed at dealing with national problems. The oil drilling moratorium is aimed at short term issues of oil drilling safety–to avoid more Macondo gushers. Now, what are conservative solutions to these national problems? The catch-all conservative solution, it seems, is to deny there are any problems. I’m not sure how lower taxes on oil companies help. I’m not sure how lifting the moratorium prevents a future gusher. In fact, I don’t see any conservative alternatives being offered to these Democratic initiatives. Conservatives, instead, try to suggest the Macondo oil gusher wasn’t so bad, global warming is a hoax, etc. Help me out here, Jim–what am I missing?

  • Eli

    Great post. This all has been so frustrating on so many levels. Our collective inability to force national media to cover the crisis of coastal land loss proportionally has been truly disheartening. It has basically smothered me.

  • JA

    Well said,
    You know, It’s only the land underneath our feet…