Gulf of Mexico oil spill memory will fade fast

21/7/2010 New Scientist THE blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil well is haunted by superlatives.The worst ecological disaster of modern times; the largest offshore oil spill in American history. Does that make it the wake-up call we all need to rethink our damaging addiction to oil? Sadly, no. In a year or two, few outside the usual environmental campaign circles will remember the trauma of the past three months, let alone be motivated to take action.

In a year or two, few outside the usual environmental circles will remember this trauma
A quick scan through history shows that massive disasters do not bring massive shifts in behaviour. After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, climate campaigners thought that, at last, Americans would wake up to the threats of global warming. Al Gore put it on the poster for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Five years on, polls show that public concern about climate science in the US has, if anything, steadily declined.

The oil spill into the Persian Gulf in 1991, during the Gulf war, made headlines worldwide and triggered warnings about our dangerous dependence on oil, including editorials in this magazine. That spill was 6 million barrels of oil - larger than the current estimates for Deepwater Horizon - but it changed nothing.

Even when disastrous events are fresh in our minds, they can be powerless in the face of ingrained behaviour and vested interests. When the giants of Wall Street went belly up in 2008 and dragged the global economy into the gutter, seasoned economists chimed that this would be a wake-up call about “casino capitalism”. The result? A rapid resumption of business-as-usual.

As we report in this issue, an army of ecologists is descending on the Gulf of Mexico to track and document the true scale of this catastrophe (see “Gulf of Mexico becomes an accidental laboratory”). Their goal is to work out what happens when you allow millions of barrels of crude oil and gas to gush unhindered through deep water, then pump toxic dispersants into the mix.

No doubt they hope to keep attention focused on the disaster. In truth, the tacit assumption of this colossal research programme is that similar events will happen again, and the more we know about them, the better prepared we will be next time.
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