Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters
The motive seems clear. The words signal sympathy for the people of the
But is the description accurate?
Scholars of environmental history, while expressing sympathy for the people of the gulf, say the assertion is debatable. They offer an intimidating list of disasters to consider: floods caused by human negligence, the destruction of forests across the entire continent and the near-extermination of the American bison.
“The White House is ignoring all the shades and complexities here to make a dramatic point,” said Donald E. Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas and a visiting scholar at Yale.
The professors also note the impossibility of ranking such a varied list of catastrophes. Perhaps the worst disaster, they say, is always the one people are living through now.
Still, for sheer disruption to human lives, several of them could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl.
“The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at
Across the High Plains, stretching from the
Boiling clouds of dust whipped up by harsh winds buried homes and cars, destroyed crops, choked farm animals to death and sent children to the hospital with pneumonia. At first the crisis was ignored in
By the mid-1930s, people started to give up on the region in droves. The Dust Bowl refugees joined a larger stream of migrants displaced by agricultural mechanization, and by 1940 more than two million people had left the Great Plains States.
However, the Dust Bowl lasted a decade, and that raises an issue. What exactly should be defined as an environmental disaster? How long should an event take to play out, and how many people have to be harmed before it deserves that epithet?
Among sudden events, the Johnstown Flood might be a candidate for worst environmental disaster. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused a poorly maintained dam to burst in southwestern
At the time it happened, that event was understood as a failure of engineering and maintenance, and that is how it has come down in history. Perhaps a one-day flood is simply too short-term to count as an environmental disaster.
On the other hand, if events that played out over many decades are included, the field of candidates expands sharply.
Perhaps the destruction of the native forests of
Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, nominates “the human overhaul of the
However, those activities were not seen as disasters at the time, at least by the people who carried them out. They were viewed as desirable alterations of the landscape. It is only in retrospect that people have come to understand what was lost, so maybe those do not belong on a disaster list.
Oil spills, too, seem to be judged more by their effect on people than on the environment. Consider the Lakeview Gusher, which was almost certainly a worse oil spill, by volume, than the one continuing in the gulf.
In the southern end of
It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of
The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.
The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside
That sets it apart from the Deepwater Horizon leak. The environmental effects of the gulf spill remain largely unknown. But the number of lives disrupted is certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands; the paychecks lost in industries like fishing add up to millions; and the ultimate cost will be counted in billions.
Even with all that pain, can it yet be called the nation’s worst environmental disaster?
“My take,” said William W. Savage Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, “is that we’re not going to be able to tell until it’s over.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs