With more news coming out on the undeterminable consequences of Corexit 9500A, the chemical dispersant used by BP to “manage” the largest oil spill in US history, we are reminded that we do not fully understand the complexity of Earth’s life systems.
NewScientist reports, “Coral populations in the Gulf of Mexico could fall because of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster – from contact not with oil but with the dispersant that’s supposed to get rid of it.”
Oceana scientist Margot Stiles said that widespread use of dispersants make this spill unique:
What we have learned from previous oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez is that oil tends to sink into the sediments, where it can reemerge and contaminate the ecosystem for decades to come. What makes this spill different from the others is the extensive use of dispersants, which have broken the oil into billions of tiny particles, preventing it from being fully removed from the ocean and exposing many more deep-sea creatures to the spill than would otherwise be harmed.
Author Jeff Goodell said in an interview with NPR that dispersants are more of a cosmetic fix than anything else:
Well, one of the virtues of dispersants is that they make the oil on the surface disappear. What they do is sort of break up the oil slicks into smaller particles of oil. But it also has big sort of political benefits in that you see less oil coming up onto the shore where it can be seen by television cameras and others. The real problem is that the dispersants break the oil up into much smaller particles that sink down into the water column of the Gulf. And we have to remember that this oil is coming up from a mile deep, and so there’s a lot of life in the Gulf there from the bottom to the top. And it’s sending this oil out in smaller sort of particles that can be more easily sort of taken up by organisms, from coral reefs all the way up to killer whales, in the Gulf. And it’s going to be much harder to quantify this damage.
Any solutions? I am reminded of a piece by David Orr “What is Education For” and his writing on our miscalculation in trying to “manage the Earth”
A second myth [of modern education] is that with enough knowledge and technology, we can, in the words of Scientific American, “manage planet earth”. Higher education has largely been shaped by the drive to extend human domination to its fullest. In this mission, human intelligence may have taken the wrong road. Nonetheless, managing the planet has a nice ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons, and dials. But the complexity of earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere.