Apocalypse Again

April 30th, 2010 | 41 Comments
Climate Change, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Gulf of Mexico Oil Blow-Out, News, PBS Television Show: "Saving the Ocean"

By Carl Safina

Don’t believe the globe is warming?

Gerald Herbert/AP

Fine. Whatever.

Here’s one thing everyone agrees on: the fact that oil spills. Even without global warming—even if global warming is a hoax—we must, finally, eventually, kick the carbon-energy addiction. The fact that oil spills is among those reasons.

As if New Orleans doesn’t have enough problems. As if shrimpers and fishermen, already staggered, need an oil spill that will finish them.

And now look: 5,000 barrels a day. Not 1,000 as they’d been saying. 5,000 barrels a day. That’s two hundred barrels an hour, 24/7.

When will it end? No one can say. Months, I’m hearing. “It could eclipse Exxon Valdez.”

Patrick Semansky/AP

A man asked tonight for my thoughts on what will happen if the oil reaches shore. I’d rather not think about it, I told the audience.

Explosions. Dozens of dead workers this month, lost between the coal mine and the brine. Point being: fossil fuels—coal and oil—are dirty. They make people sick. They make people die. They hurt innocents, human and non. Their time has passed.

The things that must be done to kick this filth are the same things that must be done to address climate change, regardless: harness the tides we are despoiling. Harness the wind that’s pushing all that oil ashore. Harness the sun that’s making that rainbowed sheen.

KPA/Zuma/Rex Features

After the blast at the rig, not enough booms could be found to contain the mushrooming billows of oil. Dispersants? They dissolve the oil, sinking it from the surface. What was polluting the surface now pollutes the whole sea. Right in the only spawning area of the remaining west Atlantic bluefin tuna, which are spawning now. No solution there. Plus, look, there’s not enough to stop the spreading slick. Burn it? Only 3 percent of the slick is thick enough to catch and hold the flame on the surface of the sea.

Keith Ellenbogen/Oceana

This latest catastrophe has begun licking the shore.

Herons will soon know it. Turtles will know it. Shrimp nurseries will be painted in crude. Dolphins will come for air in oil. And all those migrant birds coming across the Gulf. This is the peak of their spring migration. They’re landing exhausted in those vast marshes for a rest they believe will be only temporary. Those emerald expanses will blacken. And the terns and skimmers and plovers headed toward their nesting grounds on my Long Island shores; how much will that living tide will be thinned as the black tide arrives?

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

The price at the pump: $3 a gallon. The cost of the light sweet crude is different from the price. The cheaper the gallon, the higher the cost. Because the cheaper we pump the more we drink and the more we drink the thirstier we are. The U. S. burns over 20 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China, and India—combined.

But we can’t burn this slick now coming ashore for us.

Three dollars a gallon?

Patrick Semansky/AP

You pay for the ships. You pay for the crews. The fishermen’s unemployment insurance. The lives lost. The jobs lost. Children whose fathers have been deleted with a click. Your taxes at work. The Coast Guard. Obama pledges, “every single available resource.”

Three dollars a gallon? Hardly.  We pay, pay, pay.

Lobbyists say we must drill. Republicans say we must drill. Obama says we must drill.


“We need that offshore production,” the oily head says on TV. “But this will fire up the environmentalists.”

Yes. Indeed it will.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Shrimpers have sued to regain a fraction of the cost. They have no idea what’s coming to get them. They’re looking at years and years.

“This is gonna be used like a bludgeon against our industry for a long time to come,” says the oily head on TV.

He makes that sound like a bad thing.

But I hope he’s right. It’s only fair; the oil’s effects will bludgeon people, places, and animals for a long time to come.

The oyster grower says, “There’s fear we could be dealing with a catastrophe.”

“It’s premature to say this is catastrophic,” says the admiral.

Who’s she kidding?

Lobbyists say we must drill. Republicans say we must drill. Obama says we must drill more in offshore areas that have for a generation been closed.


“This is gonna be used like a bludgeon against our industry for a long time to come.”

I hope he’s right.

I will certainly do what I can to make sure he’s right.

# # #

Dr. Carl Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross, and his writing has been featured in National Geographic. He’s been profiled by the New York Times, Nightline, and Bill Moyers. His awards include a Pew Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, and the MacArthur Prize, among others.

41 Responses to “Apocalypse Again”

  1. Helen Engle says:

    Carl Safina:
    I KNEW you would tell the world what is REALLY happening.
    I’ll be so happy to see you on May 18 at the People For Puget Sound Breakfast.
    Keep up your good work.
    Helen Engle

  2. Lowell says:

    Nice work, Dr. Safina…..

    You are a voice that I wish was heard by many more millions of people….

    Hopefully, our kids and grandkids will be living in a world free from the slavery (yes, slavery) of oil company profiteering.

    Thanks for all your efforts,

    Lowell Hein
    Jensen Beach, Florida

  3. Carolyn Hopper says:

    I have been writing my senators about why I am concerned about the push for drilling.
    Perhaps this awful accident will help nudge them in the direction of reconsidering drilling.
    While they want the US to be independent of foreign oil, we should be getting OFF oil as you
    Where to put the best pressure?

  4. ken wilson says:

    Carl Safina at his straight talking finest!

  5. Carl,

    Thanks for writing this! I Just got back from that area ( red fishing ) and after talking with the local fishermen, commercial oystermen, and fly fishing guides, I flew home today with the same feelings you have just expressed. These people are truly going to suffer, as well as the marshes and wildlife. It is such a helpless feeling to know that something that was avoidable cannot be stopped. These people have to either relocate ( again) or pay the consequences for the oil companies by “helping” them with their problem!
    This is a huge lesson for all of us. It is really up to us to start demanding affordable energy solutions. Once we are in control of our own energy ( solar) we can put and end to a very small percentage of the population making wrong decisions.
    This is so depressing.

  6. Dan Plummer says:


    I couldn’t agree more, how many times does something like this have to happen before folks get it. I live in the Catskill Mountains in NY and our home is sitting on top of the Marcellus Shale Formation. The oil and gas companies are ready to begin drilling here now for natural gas with a method called Hydrofracking, if you aren’t sure what this is google it and see. There is no infrastructure in place that can handle the waste water, no code enforcement, no manpower to supervise the drilling, no environmental impact study defining the dangers, and no idea of long term environmental impact drilling will have on the area, yet drilling is close to happening besides all these things.

    The loopholes have to be closed once and for all, we can minimize spills and tragedies like what has happened in the Gulf by not allowing unsafe practices to happen in the first place. It’s time to let the guys in charge of these companies drink the frack water or swim in the oil slicks for a while that they caused by not considering the results of their efforts.

    I hate to write a letter like this as I truly want to believe no one wants things like this to happen, but the reality is in some cases I just don’t think everyone cares.

    All the best, let me know what I can do to help.


  7. Michelle says:

    Dear Carl,

    I have goosebumps on my skin. Perhaps those calling for more offshore drilling will come to the realisation that the human and nature cost is just not worth another accident like this one. Can anyone in their right mind say that it is safe to drill oil?

    We like to think that we are a superior being with superior technology. Are we? All the computers, chemical agents, satellite image cannot stop this oil spill from reaching the shores. It won’t stop the major catastrophe.

    My heart aches for the lives and the animals that will perish. This is the price of oil. What we pay at the pump is an artificial make-believe price. Only a fool would fall for that.

    Take care and please let’s campaign for a cleaner ocean, green energy, and social justice.

  8. Brian Linton says:

    Well put and to the point. It is a catastrophe, and sadly enough, something like this will hopefully waken people up to the issues with offshore drilling…and our oil dependence in general…

  9. Lane says:

    You know, if we made a serious commitment as a nation to invest in conservation and efficiency through policy, subsidy, legislation, tax incentives, and personal action, the amount of energy saved would be greater that what we extract from offshore drilling. This is before wind, solar, and other renewable sources are considered. We continue to pursue offshore drilling as a policy instead of conservation because the oil companies make a lot of money from drilling and use some that money to make sure policy protects their profits at our and the environment’s expense.

  10. David W. Ballentine says:

    As a former merchnt seaman, with sixteen years sailing the oceans of the world:(six consecutive years circumnavigating the world eastward bound out of New York.) I have sailed the pristine waters of the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the mediterainian, the Indian Ocean and the pacific North American waters and South American Waters, I can truthfully say there was no oil slicks to disturb the awe of a night fall at sea, Now, despite the lame assurances of the energy indusrty, we,and that includes all of us, we kill the fish, destroy the environment and defile the very concept of environmentalist. I’m 86 years old, I probably will not live to see the final result of Man’s insatiable search for monetary gain!
    Face it! The Oil companies are profitting from inevitable destruction of the environment!

  11. True, Carl – and, as usual, well spoken.
    While the surface effects of the spill are visible, those below, as you allude to, are not. And so often as is the case (as Tom has been saying for decades in lectures he’s given concerning the oceans) what lies out of sight remains out of mind. The life & death struggle that takes place below the waves is invisible to the vast majority of people on this planet. Why then would they be concerned? We saw a spark of concern that lasted a while after the Exxon Valdez spill. Perhaps we can hope that spark will ignite as the flames of this spill rage across the waters and filter harmful poisons through the depths, affecting a vast array of marine life and, ultimately, the human life that depends upon the Gulf’s resources. And maybe in that spark, the call to give up our fossil-fuel addiction will finally be heeded. Tom & I will continue to produce films that create awareness about the importance of protecting the oceans and the life they sustain. Thank-you for sounding the trumpets; let’s hope they are loudly heard.

  12. Well said, Carl! I remember covering the Exxon Valdez spill… oil was spilling in Alaska, just as the first gulf war was heating up to spill blood into the sands of Iraq. Let’s move off oil, people. It’s poison. It’s killed too many. We can invent our way out of this mess. But it is going to take some self-discipline too.

  13. Stacy Clark says:

    An elegantly written and emotionally provocative call to action! I posted it on twitter and will add it to my environmental blog. Thank you so much for addressing the real cost of fossil fuels! If I made this connection over 25 years ago in an Environmental Economics class at Skidmore, how is it that we are still in denial about the dysfunctional relationship we have with fossil fuels? It’s like a bad relationship that’s hard to give up because it’s superficially convenient. This is an opportunity, though, however unfortunate, for our administration to step up, wipe the slate clean, and convince the public that renewable energy is cheap in comparison to the catastrophic price we pay for fossil fuels. I think it was Tom Friedman who wrote earlier this week that Obama needs to use charts, graphs, video clips, and a large white board to illustrate the many sacrifices we make that we may not fully appreciate. Even putting global warming’s costs aside (and we only do that to temporarily placate the zany, angry outrage of climate skeptics), the hardships of an economy linked directly to fossil fuels are vast. We still face an oil slick as big as Ohio, species extinction; increasing lung and heart disease; deadly mine explosions; mountaintop removal; perishing forests; dying oceans; shrinking habitats; and the giant Pacific gyres of plastic!? The list is long and the costs are practically incalculable. But to save our planet, we’re going to have to connect the economic dots. Thank you for speaking to the very things I care most about.

    Stacy Clark

  14. Tim Magner says:

    Thank you Carl. We need more articulate and passionate activists like you.

    If we were forced to pay the real price of fossil fuels, drilling in pristine waters would make no economic sense. Factor in the hundreds of billions the US Govt provides in direct subsidies (think US Naval in Middle East waters and war in Iraq) and the healthcare costs associated with air, water and soil pollution and $3/gallon is less than half of what we ought to be paying.

    Please remember: We have short memories. The media will be back to Brad and Angelina shortly. Let’s get Congress to act- tax waste and pollution (and lower labor taxes).

    Tim http://www.greensugarpress.com

    P.S. Consider seeing the Ocean movie currently out. Hopefully more people make the connection between pumping gas and the health of our ecosystems.

  15. Cindy Troop says:

    No matter how safe the oil and mining industries tell us their operations are – stuff happens. Machinery breaks down; there are miscalculations; mistakes are made; and sweet earth pays the price!!! Beyond sad.

    Thanks you for all you do.

  16. JP O'Neill says:

    I’ve been a follower of your work since Song for the Blue Ocean. Please submit this or a version of it to the NYTimes, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal… It’s a sentiment many of us agree with but few express as well. Thank you for your work and please continue to fight the good fight.

  17. Betsy Walker Hasegawa, Japan says:

    Carl, thanks for your clear voicings on this, and all; here I add tears along with so many others, saline tears.

  18. Jeff says:

    Just another voice in support of the good work you do. Keep it up. God bless you, Jeff.

  19. Darla West says:

    Hi Dr. Safina,
    How can people help out these helpless marine life escape the oil slick? I’m thinking about the sperm whales, dolphins, porpoises, loggerhead turtles. I can only image how badly it will be for them to come up for air and suck in all that oil. What can people do to help these marine animals out? Not to forget the Alligators also will be hurt.
    Is Green Peace going to help any? Do you know?
    Are the help groups patrolling the shores of the Gulf areas where the spill likely to go to see if there are any distressed birds like the brown pelicans, terns, etc.

    Thank you,
    Darla West, Houston, Texas

  20. Lyda Cunningham says:

    This is a wonderful graphic and accurate portrait of the disaster unfolding in the Gulf. “Apocalypse Again” is a brilliant title. My only suggestion is for you to consider getting your thoughts and observations out to the national newspapers. The public needs to be aroused, and your words are certainly arousing.

    I am furious to read today that BP had discounted (in writing) to possibility of an accident such as this disaster.

    Regards, Lyda

  21. Great article, Carl. Powerful juxtaposition of the apocalyptic images of the explosion with the animal photos. For those interested, the Surfrider Foundation has put together a great letter that you can easily send to all your representatives, and President Obama, just by providing your ZIP code. You can edit the letter as much as you want.


  22. Terrie Weeks says:

    Perfectly said, as always. I can barely stand to think about what is happening to the Gulf I have always loved. If I start crying I might never stop

  23. barbara says:

    I see the problem of oil dependency is with the people. If the people would just stop consuming gas at the pump and oil made products we could send a message to the government and the oil companies that we have the power and they better shape up. The finger pointing seems to be at the oil companies and government but ultimately it is with us — the people who consume and consume — barbara

  24. Eva Salzman says:

    Observing from London with a sinking heart. Covered widely in press here, yet it’s interesting how the British in BP is skated over in articles I read here. Had this been caused by as US companies, you can be sure most journos would trumpet this fact far and wide. Not that this is a problem defined by national boundaries.

    I can’t see how Obama can proceed with with drilling plans. I understand he’s shelved, for time being anyway, whereas I’m sure many if not most Presidents would just march forward regardless. Hopefully not just a PR exercise. (Yeah right. Everything’s a PR exercise.)

  25. Steven Leonti says:

    Hi Carl: Thanks for that wake up call! This oil disaster is totally horrific & the consequences are unimaginable. The long term effects will be devestating to say the least. Perhaps it will lead to much needed reform & head this country in the right direction of using other sources of energy.
    The real problem here is that we are ALL part of the problem and let’s not kid ourselves about that. So, it only makes sense that we should ALL be part of the solution! I for one am going to purchase a hybrid vehicle & try to see about installing solar panels on our house. Hey, at least it’s a start.
    OH, and as far as Global Warming, well you know the answer to that one I’m sure…….

    Stay well & hope to see you soon,

  26. Javana says:

    Carl, I am just catching up with the news on this oil spill and I thought of you. I enjoyed your “sermon” at my church – The Vineyard of Ann Arbor. I’m glad Ken introduced you to us. I thought to myself “I bet Carl Safina has something to say about this,” so I found your website – and boy do you :) I am going to make you my go-to-man for environmental updates :) I appreciated your thoughts on the spill. Happy Sunday!

  27. Susan Newman says:

    Thank you so much for telling it like it is. The oil companies should be ashamed of themselves for this disaster, as well as the U.S. Government for not making sure all safety precautions were taken. Now we have oil leaking uncontrollably and they have no idea when they’re figure out a way to stop it. This is going to effect not just the wildlife and fisherman’s businesses, but restaurants and stores across the country.

  28. Julie says:

    I agree to an extent but wish you offered a solution. What good is all this talk about what we can’t do. What is your alternative?

  29. carl safina says:

    Thirty years ago i learned that oil’s real price is much more than we pay for it, and that we need clean energy technology and a switch to solar, wind, geothermal, tidal…

    That’s the alternative. That’s what we need. It won’t happen unless the government gets behind it.

    – Carl

  30. Dennis Bader says:

    Hey Carl:

    Glad to see you still going strong. Thanks for putting it out there and best always,

    Dennis Bader

  31. Mary Beth Gray says:

    Hi Dr. Safina,
    Very powerful article. Thank you for being a voice of reason through all of this! I appreciated talking with you at Creation: Call to Care that was held at Lee University last fall. I’ll be following your blogs to get the real story about this oil catastrophe.

  32. Steve Sanders says:

    Julie asked what the solution to this problem (the larger problem) is, and Carl replied, “It won’t happen unless the government gets behind it.” I’ll just state the obvious next part to that solution: The government WON’T “get behind it” (a serious, concerted and sustained large-scale move to alternative energy) unless WE as citizens _go beyond_ getting behind it by _lighting a fire_ to their behinds… Our government representatives’ and officials’ behinds, that is.

    Given the pervasive and near-complete corrupting influence of corporate money on our political, law-making and judicial process, it’s going to take all of us who are concerned to light a fire under their ass — to put it bluntly.

    The destruction of the Gulf, and potential serious damage to the Florida Keys, Caribbean and other regions is beyond sad. It’s tragic and unforgiveable. We’ve all got to do something, and do it now. So, don’t get sad – get mad. And go do something about it.


  33. Shannon says:

    I was directed to this forum, and its great to see the message getting out. I live in Texas. Houston, Texas. Talk about a place where “Big Oil” has a huge number of advocates. Those of us who have lived along these shores long enough know well how delicate the balance is.

    My childhood memories of family trips to the beach and fishing trips to the beach with my dad are numerous…. they are filled with good times. Just as much of an imprint is the memory of always having to wash the tar off my skin using gasoline because a bath wasn’t enough to do it. Beaches = tar. Now its been about 2 decades since I’ve had to do that. But there are sink pits all around the Galveston-Bolivar-Surfside coastlines which can swallow farm equipment whole. One tried to swallow the front end of my truck. We call it “quick mud” – an accumulation of tar and mud that is invisible to the eye as the sand blows over and covers it. The way you find these spots is put something heavy enough on top and watch it sink. Sometimes its livestock – I know of one horse that sank to its shoulders but was miraculously saved. I’ve seen cattle get stuck as they crossed these spots to access fresh water. Many of them have died where they stood – from starvation and dehydration. Like the tar pits of old where dinosaur fossils are now found.

    So – thank you – each and every one of you – for getting the message out. Nothing benign in this. Obama is all about covering up and bailing out big screw ups. I hope the world won’t stand for it. I don’t.


  34. luke melton says:

    If we want to see the real culprit behind the current oil debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, then we need to look in the mirror.

    It is our modern society’s continuing — and growing — demand for the abundant energy contained in petroleum that fuels the increasingly extreme efforts of energy suppliers of all stripes to push the envelope to extract the materials that will provide the energy we require to keep our culture running on all cylinders.

    I equate the situation with the drug war that is raging between various drug cartels along the U.S./Mexican border: if there was no demand in the U.S. for the various drugs that Mexico’s cartels can supply then there would be no cartels, no mutiple murders every day, no beheaded bodies discovered in mass graves.

    It is the demand that drives the suppliers to provide that which is demanded, and the greater the demand the more reckless the efforts become to meet it.

    I believe we may be at a crossroads in modern society: we have so many people around the world demanding energy to propel their machines, light their homes and offices, run their televisions, cell phones, iPads, etc., that meeting the demand requires such seemingly crazy efforts as drilling for oil 18,000 feet below the surface of the sea, with all its attendant costs, risks and dangers.

    And the truth is that petroleum is the only energy source that provides the requisite amount of energy. Uranium packs more energy into a cubic centimeter than petroleum, but no other energy source comes close. Not only will it take many years, perhaps decades, for alternative sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, etc. to become widely distributed enough to make a noticable dent in the energy demand, but the amount of energy provided by any one of these alternatives is miniscule compared to the energy we current receive from petroleum derivatives. Not to mention the future cost of plastics, fertilizers and other materials derived from petroleum.

    If we truly wish to wean ourselves from the teat of petroleum, then we must start with a fundamental restructuring of modern society. We must all individually use a great deal less energy of all kinds that do presently. This will naturally have a stunning effect on our current economic system, which assumes a constant increase in consumer demands for products, the vast majority of which require some form of combustible or electrical power.

    We have met the enemy,..and it’s us. Are Americans, and folks in rapidly developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia reall ready to give up the comfortable life styles they currently enjoy? I seriously doubt it. I beleive there will be a great deal of hand-wringing and breast-beating about the current oil debacle in the Gulf, but I am afraid that in the long run little will change regarding the supplying of the energy we require to keep modern culture running until a true catastrophe occurs — such as gasoline costing $8.00 to $9.00 a gallon.

    I believe that most people will not demand the changes that are required to avert a pending disaster so long as they feel relatively safe and comfortable. Unfortunately, if we wait until a true energy crisis occurs the long lead time to implement effective alternatives may ensure a protracted period of real societal and economic stress, even, perhaps, the collapse of modern civilization as we know it.

    So, look in the mirror, and ask yourself what you are willing to change. If we are honest with ourselves, many of us may find the answer is “not much.”

  35. Greg Rempel says:

    This is one of the most thoughtful opinions I have read since this catastrophe began. Thanks, Carl.

  36. Len Bolorin says:

    A lot of of folks blog about this issue but you said really true words!!

  37. Twig George says:

    Thank you, Carl. Please keep the information coming. I heard on a program about the Exxon Valdez that herring has not returned to Cordova, AK, after the Exxon Valdez, even 20+ years later. I have heard that traces of oil from the Amoco Cadiz were found in every ocean not long after the spill. The idea that technology is safe needs to be challenged. What about the new “safe” nuclear power plants that are being proposed? It seems we don’t make changes until things are really, really bad. Maybe this is it. Let’s hope.

  38. Harriet Fasenfest says:

    There is no “they” or if there is they are not entirely unlike us. They, and we, if we are honest, fell hook line and sinker into our modern, industrial/technological world and like manna from heaven we keep buying in and loving every part of it except the part of it that allows for it. So if nothing else, the Gulf is our projection holder. Yes, perhaps it is obscenely magnified in its clear indifference, but only because they stood in the belly of the beast and were able to look away. We have a slightly better excuse but again, there is no real “they”.

    And David the merchant marine – what a fabulous memory you supplied us — face to the wind on the beautiful night sea. Lovely. Your age has given you a story we should listen to. It is a touch stone to a life that is quickly fading. We should listen to our elders and to whomever remembers a world before “they” tookso we can pass them on in the event we do not have ones of our own.

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  40. […] The Gulf, particularly on the Florida panhandle, is where I grew up on the ocean—as often as possible from Atlanta, Georgia. It’s where my love of the ocean began and where my commitment to marine conservation began. This spill might be a small problem compared to some of the issues the ocean is facing, but it’s heartbreaking nevertheless. Why? I think Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute says it far better and with far more knowledge than I can: Apocalypse Again […]

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