Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CORRECTION: BP Oil Spill: Disaster, Media Hype or Fitting a Narrative?


I have only just noticed that because of some sloppy cutting and pasting the original blog on BP Oil Spill: Disaster, Media Hype or Fitting a Narrative? must have lost sense to the reader about halfway through (anything before that was really written like that!) Sorry about this but it is a lesson to me to read blogs through properly again and again even when you think you have already done so.

The new, edited blog is now available. The original incorrect blog has been deleted.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Floods in Pakistan: Why is aid so slow?

You might ask if issues surrounding aid and aid distribution are a legitimate concern of environmental geography. I would argue anything that will impact upon the environment and people’s interactions with that environment is important. This includes flows of capital, aid, materials and their distribution to populations as well as the geography of these flows and their materialization in the environment. You may disagree with this vision of environmental geography but even in this case I hope the discussion below raises some questions concerning aid in general by focusing on this disaster in particular.

According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS, an intergovernmental organization of international banks), the average daily turnover in foreign exchange markets as of April 2007 was estimated to be $3.98 trillion (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_exchange_market). The New York Stock Exchange in 2008 had an average daily trading value estimated at $153 billion (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Stock_Exchange). I mention these figures only to show that the volume and rate at which capital can be moved around financial markets, presumably as recorded and confirmed transactions between at least two individual parties, seems to be extremely rapid. Transference of aid seems to be a lot slower. I am sure it will be pointed out that aid is different; relief organisations collating individual pledges as well as governments pledging sums for aid. My question would be so what systems are these aid and governmental organizations using, why are they so much slower and couldn’t the systems financial markets use to speed transactions be looked at for lessons about how to move aid funds around more rapidly?

Two recent articles about the floods, one by Adrian Hamilton (Aid trickles while the waters flood, The Independent, 19th August 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/adrian-hamilton/adrian-hamilton-aid-trickles-while-the-waters-flood-2056111.html ), the other by Rob Crilly (Pakistan flood aid from Islamic extremists. The Telegraph, 21st August 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/7957988/Pakistan-flood-aid-from-Islamic-extremists.html) present the key arguments and concerns that may underlie this issue of the slowness of aid contributions from the world.

Hamilton raises a number of issues that may be summarized by the term ‘trust erosion’ as he notes. The claims by David Cameron that Pakistan is an exporter of terrorism, the expectations amongst Pakistanis themselves that most of the aid will end up in the hands and accounts of the ruling elite, the recent experiences of government corruption in disasters (including the recent L'Aquila earthquake in Italy suggesting the issue is not one confined to ‘developing’ countries) are all mentioned as affecting the willingness of the public, specifically a Western public to give aid to help the victims of the disaster. People do not necessarily believe the funds will reach the people who need it most. Problems of the increasing frequency of ‘natural’ disasters (inducing 'compassion fatigue'), the tighter economic climate and the relatively low number of deaths (so far) are also put forward as possible factors but with less force. As an aside it woudl be interesting to know if there was any ethnic or regilious variation in hte amount of aid pledged by people - tricky to get at but it would provide very useful information.

Hamilton does make the comment that the general assumption of corruption is grossly unfair to the local officials, the army commanders and the doctors who have pulled to, as well as the mosques and religious societies which have been quick to provide shelter and hand out food and drinking water in their localities.” The Western view sometimes interprets such activity as terrorist, or other such groups, trying to take advantage of a tragic situation. This is a topic developed at some length by Crilly in his article in the Telegraph. He reports from north-west Pakistan, from Nowshera where he outlines the relief work of the Islamist charity Falah-e-Insaniat, a charity he states is linked to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the terrorist group involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. Crilly notes that these militant charities are providing food, water, shelter, medicine and funds to local families and are winning the hearts and minds of local people by their reliable humanitarian actions, or by exploiting the disaster situation – depending on your viewpoint. He states that the charity claim that they can raise in a day the same amount as the Prime Minister’s disaster relief fund has obtain in total, about £1 million. They also add that they have thousands of volunteers and hundreds of collection points. They too state that no-one trusts the government, such is the general view of the level of corruption.

So what can be taken from these two articles. Firstly, I am not advocating supporting terrorist groups. I abhor violence. What both articles highlight is the need to plan and distribute aid using an appropriate network at the appropriate scale. Give a large, bureaucratic organization a task and it is likely to come up with a large, bureaucratic solution - unless that bureaucry is extremely felixble, innovative and open to novel solutions. The local religious organizations, the local Islamist charities, the local officials mentioned in each article seem to have developed or used local networks for allocation and distribution of scant resources. In the case of Falah-e-Insaniat, they also seem to have organized a system for rapidly acquiring funds and distributing them. If this organization can do why can’t others?

It may be that the context of these local organizations aids their relief work. The remoteness of the north-west and the recession of the flood waters plus the distribution of population may aid the development of such supportive local networks and hinder their translation to other parts of the country. It maybe that these local relief organizations ride on the back of existing local social and economic networks to achieve their goals. Such social and economic networks may not exist at the same scale in the rest of the country, again restricting the translation of the efforts of such organizations. But figuring out if such networks can be translated might enable aid to be more effective distributed and help slow down or even reverse trust erosion (trust deposition doesn’t sound right, so I will stop developing the metaphor there). If the West is worried about extremist groups winning the battle for the trust of people during and after this disaster maybe they would be wise to look at how this success is being achieved and to think about what is an appropriate scale of response and what scale of organization or networks need to be encouraged or created to achieve their goals at an appropriate scale. Funds can pour into Pakistan, but it the effectiveness with which these funds are used to support the victims by which the aid and the aid-givers will be judged. As Adrian Hamilton notes in his article:
“Money promised in aid means nothing by itself. What matters is people, their livelihood and their survival. If it was just a matter of money then, frankly, I'd prefer to give it to the mosques. It's more likely to reach the victims.”

Floods in Pakistan: Vulnerability

Disasters always seem to affect the most vulnerable people. Images flashed across the television screen always seem to be of the poor struggling with their few possessions to escape the onslaught of the physical events. But what is vulnerability? As you might expect it is not as simple as a single definition. Vulnerability is a complex term and only one of several that are essential to understanding how people respond and are able to respond to a hazard and a disaster (I will discuss the term more systematically in a later blog, only the bare bones of what I think is essential to this situation will be outlined here).

Vulnerability could be simply put as the potential for loss of life or property in the face of environmental hazards. The susceptibility for loss may be another useful phrase. Associated with vulnerability are other terms, often ‘borrowed’ from subjects such as ecology and used, with the various usual inappropriate translations, in geographic research. Adaptation refers to the ability of the actants in the socio-ecological system to find strategies to adapt to the hazard or disaster. Resistance is the ability of the actants to resist the impact of the hazard or disaster. Resilience is the ability of the system to absorb, self-organise, learn and adapt to the hazard or disaster. A useful resource for vulnerability can be found at the web pages of Neil Adger (http://www.uea.ac.uk/env/people/adgerwn/adger.htm) and at the Resilience Alliance website (http://www.resalliance.org/1.php) a site looking at research into resilience of socio-ecological systems and sustainability.

An important question, and a very geographic one, is at what scale can you apply these concepts? What scale is appropriate? The individual can be viewed as an important unit, but the individual usually operates within the context of a family or household, so is this a more appropriate unit for analysing vulnerability and resilience? What about larger entities such as communities and governments? As you change the unit of analysis would you expect the different units to have the same type of vulnerability, the same ability to resist or the same characteristics of resilience? Once these different spatial entities interact, such as the provision of aid by the government to individuals, does this cross scalar interaction affect vulnerability and resilience? In other words, what seems like a simple thing is very complex to unravel in detail.
Another issue is at what point it is possible to identify a vulnerable people? Before a disaster is it possible to identify characteristics at an appropriate scale of a vulnerable individual, household, community or region? During a disaster are the characteristics that define vulnerable the same or do they alter and so does who or what is vulnerable alter? Likewise after the hazard do these characteristics change again? What I hope is becoming clearer is that vulnerability, resistance and resilience vary as the hazard or disaster varies and are in a dynamic relationships with the disaster as it unfolds.

So how can this set of concepts be used to analyse the floods in Pakistan? Taking into account that I have as much sketchy and incomplete information as everyone else that relies on selective media reports and selective web for information about the floods could I suggest the following. The static aspects of vulnerability, before the disaster strikes, could be analysed by looking at access to resources and power of different parts of the population. The poor, to generalize, have little access to resources such as funds for crops, for irrigations and the like. They also have little access to political power to ensure the infrastructure serves their needs. They also have little access to resources to escape the disaster (anyone else think it’s odd that media can hire helicopters and transport into and out of disaster zones but the victims can’t?!) Identifying low income areas may provide an indication of populations likely to be unable to cope with a disaster, a sudden disruption to their daily lives. Households not integrated into a wider community may not be able to resist a disaster as well as households who are well bounded within a wider community. This property, however, may not become clear until during or after a disaster, until the community responses to the event (indeed the community may be defiendby hte disaster such as the development of a community within refugee camps).

There is also a dynamic aspect to vulnerability; the manner in which relationships are organised and the manner in which they change through normal times and then during and after a disaster. Such flows could include the transport infrastructure; a key aspect that appears to have failed during this disaster and which has dramatically affected the ability of the institution of government to maintain an effective relationship with vulnerable groups. At a local level, however, is the transport infrastructure that remains intact sufficient for the local population to move to safety and then initiate community based activities that represent resilience at that level?

But vulnerability doesn’t need to be confirmed to the lowest entity you can identify and, as you might expect, the nature of that vulnerability might change as you change your scale or entity of analysis. The Pakistani government, for example, has come in for criticism in its handling of the disaster but you could argue it is vulnerable as well. It has an inadequate infrastructure for dealing with such a wide ranging disaster (although it does beg the question does any country have an adequate infrastructure for coping with such a spatially disperse disaster). The institutions of government respond using particular procedures, mechanisms and pathways that may be vulnerable if specific aspects of the infrastructure are lost. In addition, Pakistan could be viewed as having a lack of access to appropriate resources, both financial and material, (e.g. lack of reserve funds, lack of helicopters) to respond to the disaster. The country itself could be viewed as vulnerable because of its relative developing status compared to other countries and the uneven development, and so uneven access to resources and power, within the country.

There may be no answers in the above analysis but I do hope it points out some interesting and important questions about what vulnerability may mean and how that meaning changes as the nature of the disaster unfolds and, importantly, as the resilience of different the communities emerges.

Donations for the onoging disaster can be made within the UK via the Disaster Emergency Committee, DEC, go to http://www.dec.org.uk/ or to Islamic Relief UK http://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/Donate.aspx?gclid=CNeE4KSUz6MCFYT-2AodqALklg.

Floods In Pakistan: Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster

Since the Indus began to flood northern Pakistan on 29th July, a major humanitarian disaster has unfolded, documented by the world’s media (within the UK to make a donation via the Disaster Emergency Committee, DEC, go to http://www.dec.org.uk/ or to Islamic Relief UK http://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/Donate.aspx?gclid=CNeE4KSUz6MCFYT-2AodqALklg). The disaster almost seems to be in slow motion as the floodwaters have made their way the length of the river, flooding and destroying lives and livelihoods in their wake. (Ban Ki-moon described the floods as a slow-motion tsunami to emphasis the cumulative and long-term nature of the disaster, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/19/pakistan-flood-ban-ki-moon). Reports and analysis have ranged widely encompassing subjects as diverse as the flood hydrology of the river, the plight of people unwilling to leave their crops and livestock until the last minute (if even then), the slowness of aid provision (see comments of Louis-George Arsenault of UNICEF http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11054958 ), the ability of the government to respond and the exploitation of the situation by terrorists. The unfolding disaster has also highlighted, to me at least, the limitations of a blog. Trying to get across the complexity and inter-relatedness of the disaster and its development in a short, pithy few hundreds words is beyond difficult. Such a limited space can’t do justice to the disaster or its victims but rather than say nothing I will try to provide some short bursts of thoughts on different aspects of hazards analysis this disaster highlights. Importantly, this disaster has been played out in a Western media seemingly not quite sure what to make of Pakistan and its people in the light of Western visions of terrorist groups and their relationship to the Pakistani government and people, whether this relatinoship is real or imaginary.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at the floods from slightly different angles. The first outlines the physical basis of flood and then points out some potential human influences that may have added to the disaster, the second looks at vulnerability of people, the third discuss relief and aid. They are not meant to be comprehensive, just short perspectives on a major catastrophe.

To set the scene the following graphics, drawn from the BBC website, illustrate the extent of the problem. Figure 1 illustrates the extent of the flooded area. The classification of what ‘moderately’ and ‘severely’ affected means is not clear, but the important fact to bear in mind is the vast scale, the absolute area affected by the flood waters. The total number of deaths may appear to be undramatic at the moment (although not to the 1,600 or so who have died), but the potential for deaths and the death toll, like the disaster itself, may be slow to fully unfold. Not only are the immediate effects of inundation a problem but the breakdown of the infrastructure is a vital aspect of this disaster. The destruction of roads and other means of transport mean that the usual methods of delivering aid can not be used. The rolling, wave-like nature of the disaster is illustrated by the hydrographs within the figure. The date of the peak flow changes as you go downstream. This means that the infrastructure is progressively destroyed in the direction form which aid could come.

Figure 1 Extent of floods (source BBC website)

Figures 2 and 3, before and after the floods satellite images, illustrate the extent of the flooding once again but also highlight the relatively fertile nature of the area flooded. The desert area surrounds the green zone in the before image (Figure 2), but a large portion of this green area turns blue-green after the floods (Figure 3). This highlights the often mentioned future disaster of reduced agricultural output for the immediate future. In other words, the disaster doesn’t stop when the flood water recede; people need to somehow get back to their land (although the landlord-tenant arrangements may mean it is not actually their land but land they farm) and then try to salvage what crops and livestock they can to support them into the future. In addition to flooding, the heavy rainfall can also induced landslides which add to the problems of aid delivery as well as being a major hazard in themselves (see Dave Petley's landslide blog for updates daveslandslideblog.blogspot.com/)

Figure 2 Satellite image of before floods - 2009 (Source BBC website)

Figure 3 Satellite iamge of after floods - 2010 (Source BBC website)

This is a very simple outline of the physical basis of the disaster – unprecedented rainfall, massive floodwaters surging, albeit slowly, down the most fertile regions of Pakistan. The language makes this an unavoidable natural disaster. Several news reports have begun to ask what lessons can Pakistan learn from the floods contrasting them with past floods in Africa (forgetting the different contexts or the fact that Pakistan is still working through this disaster!)

There has been some discussion of humanly induced aspects to the flooding. Mason Inman in National Geographic News on 16th August (http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2010/07/100716-pakistan-flood-farms-river-management-irrigation/) points out that the expansion of the British canal system, started under colonial rule, by river managers has resulted in a river system that canalized and dammed, where waters are diverted to feed the needs of agriculture. The positive aspect of this system is the improved agricultural development, the downside the lack of a ‘natural’ ability to absorb higher than engineered for flows as the ‘safety valves’ of the wetlands have been settled by and converted to farmland. An additional problem caused by canalization is the deposition of silt in the channels reducing their capacity to carry the floodwaters. The Indus is a glacially feed river and so has a relatively high silt content, this silt would have been deposited in the wetlands or move to the sea in uncanalized rivers. (Dr Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London has undertaken research in this field and his web pages are worth a visit http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/geography/people/acad/mustafa/ )

So are floods really the fault of the population? Was the flooding avoidable if the Pakistani people had planned more carefully. Such a question is fairly typical of the dominant approach to hazard analysis – of identifying the victims as culprits and laying blame and responsibility on their actions. To some extent this is the approach of the more recent newsreports about 'what can Pakistan learn' - as if the disaster is a test and unless you learn this time we will not be as understanding next time! A crude assessment but hopefully makes the point. At a simplistic level it sounds reasonable – an extreme natural event made worse by the actions of the people it impacts upon. Such a view misses seeing the context or understanding why people behave as they do. The same argument of ‘it’s your own fault’ could be laid at New Orleans and the failure of the flood management system – would that be acceptable? Would that be fair?

Agricultural development is vital to feed a growing population, without development of the floodplain would this have been possible? Does the diverted water actually go to the small farmers or are the irrigation schemes developed by larger more commercial farmers who have the resources to pay for dams and the like? Is the problem the floods themselves or the overall vulnerability of the population impacted by the floods? (the subject of the next blog). Do individual small farmers, the victims seen in the media, actually have any control over the canalization schemes, or the development of the floodplain; what organisation or organisations do? Do the small farmers actually own the land or is it rented with all the implications of the needed to grow cash crops to pay the rent, lack of resources to improve the land, to afford water management schemes, etc. that this implies? If the farmers do rent, then what are the implications for reconstruction policies that will help them? These questions, and many others, highlight that a sequence of economic, social and political decisions have contributed to the disaster but to say these decisions were deliberate or to use them to shift responsibility for the disaster onto the victims is simplistic in the extreme and very unfair. The small farmers, the families fleeing when all hope of saving their farms is lost, are all images of powerlessness; they are not also images of those who are responsibility. They are images of people who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when a confluence of extreme physical events and a sequence of human events beyond their control produce a disaster. Please give generously.

Monday, August 2, 2010

BP Oil Spill and Swiss Cheese: Other Examples on Web

Some times it is nice to know that your view of something is shared by others and its seems that the Swiss cheese view of the BP oil spill is one of these views (maybe one day I will think of something new under the sun!). Tim Webb in the Observer on 18th July noted the BP executives used the ‘Swiss cheese’ analogy to explain how accidents occur. MasterResource, a free-market energy blog has some comments about the Swiss cheese model. BP’s "Leading from the top in BP" powerpoint makes reference to the Swiss cheese model of accidents. These are just a few examples from a quick search of the Web - I am sure there will be a lot more out there. So the concepts in model are clearly known about. How are they actually applied in practice if they are so well known?

Pakistan Floods and Landslide Hazard

The floods in Pakistan and the damage they are causing has statred to become of interest to the media. The new link to Dave Petley's Landslide Blog (Dave is the Wilson Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Durham) links this blog to an extremely useful site that deals not only with the current floods and potential for landslides but also provides an archive of information on landslides across the globe since 2007 when Dave started his blog.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Decade of Petroleum Company Disasters?

A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation has the provocative title Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit. (introductory page, report accesibel from this page). The report states that the recent BP oil disaster is just one of four large events over the last 33 years that have made major headlines. Behind these big events, other smaller events, monthly and daily disasters that don’t make the headlines, characterise the oil and gas industries. To quote the beginning of the report: ‘These disasters demonstrate a pattern of feeding America’s addiction to oil, leaving in their wake sacrifice zones that affect communities, local economies, and our landscape.’

The report then goes on to chronicle various incidents that have happened in the US related to oil and gas companies activities, although the report admits the list is not exhaustive. The conclusion of the report is worth a relatively long quote:

‘As the preceding litany of disasters makes clear, exploiting oil and gas resources to feed a growing appetite for energy is a dangerous business. Furthermore, petroleum companies repeatedly fail to protect people, nature of the climate. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can and should be a wake-up call to all of us that now is the time to seriously begin reducing our dependence on dangerous fossil fuels …..’ (p.28)

The report finishes with a series of recommendations ranging from the financial such as ending corporate subsidies for fossil fuel energy development to legislature such as removal of exemptions from Clean and Safe Drinking Water Acts and passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation. Mixed in are policies to improve transport and home heating.

The report has a particular viewpoint, that nature of fragile and in such a delicate balance that it needs protection from humanity. The call for a move to a safer, cleaner source of energy is one I tend to agree with, but, and here is my problem, I am also someone who reads such reports and wants to try to understand more than is provided the headline figures, by the media friendly story. The nature that produces us, our lifestyles and resources may be fragile: a slight push and the whole system could collapse. Nature itself is also remarkably resilient, as the mass extinctions throughout geological time have demonstrated. Humanity could disappear and nature would still exist – this is not the sort of resilience I think most commentators opposed to the report might have in mind!

The report itself is more list than an analysis and this is where I would like to know more. The map of incidents, for example, provides no context. What is the population distribution? Does the number of incidents match this distribution. In other words are there more incidents where there are more people? This might be expected as more people mean more pipelines, more supply depots and the like. What about the comparison between the oil and gas industry and other industries? Is their record worse, better or the same as other industries over this period? What spatial context do these incidents take place in? Is the depot located in an industrial area, for example, so the general hazardscape is one of industrial hazard and industrial risk? Do the workers here know about the risk and accept it or assess it differently from those who wrote the report?

There are the economic and social contexts to consider as well. Is the economy of the area of the incidents dependent on oil and gas? Are the communities dependent on this industry? What are the displacement costs of the suggested policies? A healthy environment is essential for humanity but people have to work. Transition takes time during which people still need to eat. Suggesting some policies that will protect and enhance the environment are essential but alongside these there should be suggestions for smoothing the transition particularly where there is a spatial concentration of the ‘problem’ industries as this is also likely to result in a concentration of a dependent population. In other words policies need to be spatially sensitive as well as environmentally sensitive. There is also the question of the perception of the hazard. The report catalogues the incidents and by sheer weight of repetition you feel the burden of responsibility of the industry. Btu is this how the industry and, importantly, working in the industry is viewed on the ground. How people perceive hazards and how they react to that perception are crucial in understanding the risks individuals are prepared to tolerate. An environmentalist, viewing nature as fragile, may view any oil plant as an unacceptable risk. An oil worker may understand the argument of the environmentalist but may believe the risk has been overestimated or that the risk is less than the risk of their family starving if they are laid off because of environmental lobbying.

The magnitude/frequency relationship could looked at as well. The four big incidents – are they all the same magnitude (however that is being defined) and what is the gap between them? Do the smaller events follow a known distribution (linear, geometric, logarithmic or another distribution?) and if so what is the cause of this? Going back to a pervious blog about the Swiss cheese model of hazards – did the industry learn from the small events or big events? In other words is there a continual process of safety checking based on what the smaller incidents tell the industry about the holes in its protocols and practices or is it the large, headline grabbing events that produce such change (if indeed these changes happen). The hope is that the small events have value in focusing thinking about the holes, but the fear is that it is only the larger events that prompt such thinking.

BP Oil Spill: Disaster, Media Hype or Fitting a Narrative?

The BP oil spill in the Gulf was an environmental disaster wasn’t it? Tony Hayward fell on his sword didn’t he (the point being nicely dulled by a pension but a gesture nonetheless)? BP have set aside billions to pay for the clean-up and for compensation haven’t they? A big commercial company wouldn’t do that if it didn’t need to surely? President Obama’s rating have plunged based on perceptions of his response. Photographs of oil covered pelicans fill the Web. But is the oil spill the eco-disaster that the images on the news and Web state?

A rethink, backlash, call it what you like is starting to emerge as exemplified by the article in Time on 29th July 2010 by Michael Grunwald (The BP Oil Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?), highlights that the oil spill disaster appears to be a lot less of a disaster than the public had been lead to believe by President Obama, by Green groups, the media and local Gulf communities. The article outlines four reasons why the spill isn’t as damaging as it was initially made out to be. Firstly, the oil from Deepwater is lighter and more degradable than usual (meaning in comparison with the Valdez oil spill). Secondly, the Gulf is warmer and, again comparing to the colder water associated with the Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, so bacteria has been able to break down the oil more rapidly. Thirdly, the flow from the Mississippi has kept oil away from the coast. Lastly, Mother Nature, apparently, is incredibly resilient.

Grundwald supports his argument with comments from a number of spill-response fund contractors, in particular a former Louisiana State University professor Ivor van Heerden who he reminds readers debunked, along with out the Paul Kemp another former LSU professor, the myths the overtopping of the levees by Katrina being due to the nature of the extreme event, as suggested Army Corps of Engineers, and the role of engineering failures in the disaster. The subsequent suggested harassment and van Heerden’s loss of post are used to imply a martyr for the truth. Kemp also highlights to the author that the oil spill is a tiny contributor to the 2,000 sq. mile loss of coastal Louisiana over the last century with the canals and pipelines of the oil and gas industry being highlighted as potential contributors. Similarly, he cites and annual rate of loss of wetlands of 15,000 acres in Louisiana, whilst only 350 acres of oiled marshes have been found by assessment teams (leave aside for a moment if the two terms are technically the same and how identification is made by assessment team – it still implies a minor impact).

So has the oil spill been hyped up, only now to be found to be a leak, as Grundwald begrudgingly credits Rush Limbaugh as foreseeing? The answer is tied up with how the spill has been represented and with the expectations this raises about how the story should unfold. Science is meant to be an objective process, a final, impartial arbitrator, yet it rarely is. Grunwald is at pains to point out the affiliations of his sources, mostly scientists working for spill-response fund contractors, suggesting he understands the funding of the source will be seen as an important issue by his readers. Why? If science is objective then whoever funds it shouldn’t matter, the facts will remain the same. Science does provide a consistent method for producing consistent and repeatable results (anyone really, deeply interested in this I refer to my textbook, Science, Philosophy and Physical Geography, insomniacs will find it very useful!) The questions asked, the type of information obtained, the theories tested and interpretation is all a matter for choice. Sometimes choice is extremely limited as one technique becomes the standard in a field of study, for other areas of science there may be a range of techniques for trying not answer the same type of questions. In a field science, which is what the ecologists, biologists and engineers are trying to practice, the complexity of the real world they are trying to study makes determining a single unequivocal interpretation extremely difficult. On top of the signature of the oil spill you have the signature of long-term changes and of site-specific impacts such as canal developments that can hide, amplify or do nothing to the impact of the oil spill. This is not the simple, clear narrative that the media or, to some extent, the public want.

The labelling of the BP oil spill as an environmental disaster resulted in an almost immediately referral back to the Valdez oil spill. The visual storyline that unfolded was graphic in its portrayal of shivering, oil soaked birds, they feathers slick with black gooe. Waves of blackness struggling to break on black shore, a stark contrast to the pristine whiteness of the mountains often just in view. Armies of volunteers crying as the corpses of wildlife were dredged from the shores of the sound. There was even a clear villain – the captain of the vessel, so an easy target for blame. In other words, the media referred back to an incident that had a clear narrative structure allied by a clear series of visual images to back up that narrative structure. The label oil spill was associated in the mind of the media and the public with those images, with that narrative.

The BP oil spill of 2010, as it is now labelled, is a different beast. The context is different. This is not an enclosed body of water; it is a large, dynamic expanse of fluid into which the oil is spilling. The dynamics of dispersal are different and so the damage may be different both spatially and through time. There are images of pathetic-looking pelicans but often recycled rather than new images. There are no images of vast expanses of oil-soaked beaches with tourists struggling bare-foot through oil-caked sand. In other words, the storyline doesn’t match the Valdez. There is no struggle of fragile nature to witness in close-up, there is no valiant struggle of volunteers with the hint of nature redeemed by humanity; there may be a villain but Tony Hayward is now exiting stage left. The visual story does not match the story of the Valdez, so the impression is the disaster is not as significant. Without the visuals that match the expected story of environmental disaster dictated by the Valdez, what narrative can the media resort to?

Mother Nature is incredibly resilient apparently. Another narrative. Evidence can be selected to support this as Grunwald does. Environmentalists would state that nature is delicately balanced and we disturb that. Another narrative and another set of evidence. The impact of the BP spill may take a lot more scientific research to pin down; it may interfere with environmental systems in unexpected ways, it may take a short time, it may take years, it may produce newsworthy pictures and stories, it may produce dry, detailed and rigorous academic papers. The psychological blow of the spill to the perception of the Gulf coast as a safe clean area is part of this impact. The spill was a disaster for those killed in the blast, it is a an ongoing environmental disaster but it is different in its nature from the seeming point of reference for the media and some of the public, the Exxon Valdez. The impact is and will be complex, but it will unfold with its story, its own spatial and temporal scales. Media-wish this may or may not fit neatly into an existing narrative. What is certain is that the media, the politicians, environmentalists, the bloke at the bar, will all take the opportunity to interpret the spill in their own way, to fit their narrative and, importantly, to fit their own political views and needs.