3.5 million years ago, life rose from the sea, and everyday when we rise, it’s from an ocean.
Blanketing the Earth in a quilt of blue hues, it is from this expansive rarity in a drought-ridden galaxy that life arises. The simplest creatures – tiny, single-celled organisms afloat on the ocean’s surface – release over half of the oxygen we breathe, as swirling currents devise the climate and weather of an entire planet. It gives us the water cycle, food, and leisure; it delivers protein to over 1 billion people worldwide, and provides economic, religious, and cultural value to billions more. As I stand on the beach, magnetized by an infinitely blue horizon, negative ions released by breaking waves send a surge of calm over my body. We are biologically tuned to feel this sense of peace from the ocean – it’s as if we instinctively understand its significance to life.
I’ve loved the ocean all my life, but only recently has it made me sick. Last summer, the frigid waters of San Luis Obispo county boiled to an unprecedented warmth, unleashing a toxic red algae bloom that sickened and killed – spewing dead fish upon the beaches, followed by flailing sea lions so sick they couldn’t control their own movements. Then, there were the Montecito mudslides – a deluge of mayhem that reduced the pristine waters of Santa Barbara to a cesspool of repulsive waste, instigating one of the most disgusting – and dangerous – surf sessions of my life. Today, numerous scientific reports point to an increasingly sickening ocean, as we eat fish poisoned by the toxic accumulation of all we have dumped into our seas, and swim in waters fouled by life ashore.
It is with great distress that the place from which life once rose is now critically ill – and it’s about to become even more sickly.
On January 4th, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his plans to open almost all United States federal waters – 25 of 26 regions of the Outer Continental Shelf – to offshore oil and gas leasing. This five-year program, extending from 2019 to 2024, represents the largest number of potential offshore leases proposed in U.S. history. The final decision now rests with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an entity within the U.S. Department of the Interior that regulates and manages the Outer Continental Shelf’s energy resources.
The ocean serves humanity in two simultaneous and incompatible ways: as the basic foundation for life on Earth, providing oxygen, climate, food, culture, and livelihood; and also, as a dumping ground for humanity’s deluge of toxic waste. Today, our oceans encompass over 270,000 tons of plastic – 500 times more pieces of garbage than the number of stars in our galaxy. They absorb pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other poisonous wastes of agricultural production, unleashing toxic algae blooms and creating “dead zones” so devoid of oxygen that life no longer exists. They cower beneath the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons testing, suffering as incidental casualties in a world of constant warfare and globalized militarism. Meanwhile, they comprise our most important and heroic buffer against climate change – absorbing and trapping the majority of heat and carbon dioxide that congests the Earth’s atmosphere.
On top of these mounting stressors is the persistence of resource and mineral extraction, as oil and gas are ripped from the darkest recesses of our planet’s blue heart – an enormously damaging process, unleashing chronic oil leaks, toxic waste pollution, and seismic surveys that disturb and terrorize fish, whales, and other marine life. The ribbon of blue that emcompasses the Earth is no longer a glowing emblem of life, but a massive deposit of all that is sick, unwanted, and deadly – and the President’s proposal attests to the delusion that this can continue. Have we accepted this paradigm – one of unrestricted exploitation in the midst of reckless destruction – in our relationship with the ocean? In coming days, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will make a decision that either attests to this flawed legacy, or demands a change.
In what the Surfrider Foundation has titled, “the largest assault on our ocean in American history,” this proposal expands offshore drilling leases across federal waters in the Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. The only coastal state spared from this bold decree is Florida, because, in the words of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, “Florida is unique, and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” While this statement is a brutal slap in the face to other coastal states that rely heavily on their oceans, it’s also a testament to the fateful consequences playing out in the whirling imaginations of an anxiety-ridden public.
We’ve seen the aftermath of offshore extraction. The reason I found myself surfing in the foul waste of the Montecito mudslides to begin with was because of a toxic accident of even greater proportion: the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969, at that time the largest oil spill in U.S. history, that catalyzed the environmental movement and Environmental Studies program at U.C.S.B. that I am now a part of. Yet while this avalanche of toxic overflow originated from a different disaster many years later, in many ways it is an extension of the damage unleashed from Platform A on January 28, 1969 – a dramatic exposure of offshore drilling’s less-riveting, albeit violent, connection to fossil fuel dependency and climate destabilization.
This is not the typical violence we associate with offshore extraction. Oil spills are explosive, cinematic, gripping and dramatic – sickened and suffering animals, lost lives, and enormous swaths of ocean coated in ghastly blackness – easily explainable, attributable to a single mechanical failure, condensable into 2 hour action-dramas. What are less easy to visualize and comprehend, however, are the similarly destructive, yet slow and unseen, implications of everyday extraction on climate change and climate violence – a phenomenon with no explicit start and end point, lacking in riveting drama and Hollywood-esque explosions, caused by factors far outside the scope of easily-attributable “mechanical failures.” And unlike an oil spill, we can’t just “clean up” climate – a task that doesn’t seem to be of any interest to us anyway, as we decidedly encircle our nation with a vast brigade of more of what caused the problem to begin with. Expanding offshore drilling feeds our insatiable carbon addiction – it’s like ravenously dumping oil into an oil spill.
This is a blatant denial of climate science, in an age where we don’t have time to deny it any longer. To understand just how little time we have, one need look no further than the nineteen sales carted off by this proposal across the Arctic – a region warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, where communities of Arctic natives are plunging into polar seas, silenced and theoretically “disappeared” from a decision that, at this point, determines whether they will be physically “disappeared” as well.
The Arctic is one of the most biologically significant, productive and least-understood regions on Planet Earth. It encompasses migratory pathways and breeding grounds of worldwide significance for numerous species, drives global climate and weather, and serves as a vital indicator of climate change. Yet the Arctic’s rich biological diversity is more than a pretty display of ecological grandeur; referring to the region as their “Garden,” it forms the foundation of food security, livelihood, and cultural sustenance for Alaska native communities that predate the arrival of any additional settlers to the region. Offshore drilling plans threaten the land, security, and resource sovereignty of communities that rely on a healthy ocean, unveiling unsavory dimensions of environmental injustice that permeate this debate.
Fluid that surfaces with extracted oil and gas – called ‘produced water’ – combines with drilling muds to unleash a deluge of toxic metals and radioactive pollutants, that collectively infiltrate marine food webs and people’s fundamental food source. Chronic oil leaks release 11 million gallons of oil per year, as high-decibel explosions from seismic surveys send whales and other marine life spinning. As the arctic rapidly warms from a crisis these subsistence communities did nothing to create, they suffer the enormous cost of our infatuation with fossil fuels, losing the protective sea ice that defends their coastal settlements against violent storms and rising seas. Pleas for the federal government to take action against literal impending doom are met with proposals to expand dirty energy – an official declaration of disregard for Alaska natives, who sink into polar seas, as privileged bureaucrats discuss lucrative energy schemes from much higher elevations.
In the pursuit of a stable, equitable planet, this proposal is a huge step backwards – does it come with a plan, or even a kind suggestion, for coastal communities who will inevitably suffer? This is not solely a blaring rejection of climate science, nor the Earth’s 6th mass extinction event, but a savage devotion to a paradigm of development that reduces certain groups to surplus citizens – a paradigm that is sickening our galaxy’s only ocean, and all of the life that it supports.
While not all of us are on the frontlines of rising seawater and terrifying storm surges, we already feel the effects of a warming arctic. More frequent and intense hurricanes, disastrous floods, record-breaking wildfires in the months of winter, and a steadily climbing population of climate refugees all tell the story of a warming arctic. It’s not just the polar bears anymore – climate violence is felt by all of us.
Yet in the midst of this assault of people’s fundamental safety, this proposal is framed as a quest for national security and energy sovereignty – demonstrated by yet another brilliant attempt at coercion by Florida’s friend Zinke, who stated that,
We want to grow our nation’s offshore energy industry, instead of slowly surrendering it to foreign shores.
This simplification of a very complex issue suggests that fossil fuel development is an essential component of energy sovereignty – a less-than-ideal-but-better-than-nothing necessity for the ‘greater good’ of U.S. citizens. This is the position taken by the fossil fuel industry’s most loyal companions, otherwise known as our national leaders – individuals who seem full of answers to this apparent national security crisis, but severely lack in descriptions of what “national security” is to begin with: free from the political side-effects of oil overseas, but sickened by our polluted surroundings, outrunning the next hurricane, superstorm, or [insert terrifying natural disaster here]? Does involuntarily conscripting marginalized communities as necessary casualties in pursuit of some ambiguous ‘greater good’ paint a magnificent vision of safety and security? Climate change doesn’t discriminate, we do – and as we sicken as a society, sacrificing human rights, safety, and equality for the wealth and comfort of a select few, the ocean sickens too.
This unoriginal spin is not the only injustice at play in this decision. Censorship and silencing of science are both very real concerns in this push for offshore expansion, as public pushback and the work of scientists are stifled and ignored. Offshore extraction suffers an unsavory history of suppressing climate scientists – Joel Clement and Charles Monnet are just a couple infamous examples of scientists who, while working for the Department of the Interior, were punished or fired for implicating in offshore energy and fossil fuel development. Clement was removed from his seemingly important job assisting Alaska natives respond to coastal erosion and climate change, and Monett was suspended from the BOEM and put under house arrest.
It’s not just the scientists – public intervention is stifling as well, as the BOEM alters standard procedure, essentially trashing the concept of an official public hearing. Earlier this year, they replaced official public hearings with what they called “open-house style” hearings: rhetorically dressed-up, albeit useless, replacements of a formal process – in which members of the public stop by at their own leisure, glance at a short, looping video, submit a couple comments, and leave. Additionally, these hearings were restricted to the capitals of each state – automatically discluding far-away coastal communities and indigenous populations. Myself and the millions of residents that live along the California coast don’t feel inclined to drive several hours to gossip whilst viewing futile propaganda on why the BOEM is even considering this to begin with – it’s like reducing a Congressional session to a picnic in the park.
Despite futile attempts to slip this one past the public eye, those in power haven’t anticipated just how closely we are watching. Coastal communities, governors, and attorney generals across the United States are not happy. California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has called the proposal,
A step backward in time, toward an energy policy that blindly handcuffs the nation to an unsustainable future.
While the plan overflows with dangerous mistakes, the most dangerous mistake of all is underestimating the intelligence and power of a public that has been repeatedly let down, manipulated, and silenced. Exiting from Paris, dismantling national parks, sneaking Arctic drilling measures into tax plans – this decision sits atop an avalanche of poorly-made, nefarious decisions, following a year when we’ve watched disaster after disaster raze communities, as national leaders shrug their shoulders in feigned innocence and disbelief. The next mass hurricane, the next record-breaking wildfire, and the next mass shooting will not be because of poor weather, an unfortunate spark, or a deranged assassin – they will result from poor-decision making – the bureaucratic violence – inflicted by our national leaders. It was a lot easier back in the day when administrations used to just do this stuff behind our backs – but they’ve lit a match to an issue charged with social dynamite, and now, we’re awake.
This is not just a fight for a cleaner, healthier ocean – it’s a battle for an equitable, secure, just society. It’s a request for policymaking that doesn’t put people in harm’s way. It’s a demand for leadership that prioritizes the needs of U.S. citizens, not the poisonous whispers of a dying industry. If any foreign enemy ever inflicted the violence in one day that we inflict upon ourselves over the course of decades, we’d retaliate with great strength – not gift the enemy a 5-year pass to hover around our country’s borders.
All that poisons on land ultimately makes its way to an ocean. The deteriorating state of our oceans speaks to this, as they inherit not only the toxic deluge of physical waste that brews ashore, but the outflow of pervasive injustice. Underlying every aggressive algae bloom, every toxic mudslide, and every intrusive offshore platform lies a foundation of negligent leadership, inequitable decision-making, and bureaucratic violence, that ultimately congregate into an ocean of disaster.
As our oceans bare the weight of pervasive injustice, their rapid decline points to the origin of disease that is us. They are sickened by the suppression of public opinion and criminalization of scientists. They are plagued by an ill-conceived notion of development that equates progress with plundering of resources. As we increasingly watch the symptoms of disease manifest across our oceans, we see that adopting an impassioned determination to heal the ocean provides the opportunity to heal human society in a unique and powerful way.
For decades, scientists have scoured the night sky for signs of water, and have yet to discover a single drop. In a galaxy devoid of this indisputable necessity for life, we’ve been given a gift from the universe. We weren’t given a single drop, but an entire ocean – a vast body of blue, teeming with life of unfathomable beauty and worth, that is responsible for our small sanctuary of life amongst dead black space. It’s time to reevaluate what the ocean means to us. For centuries, it has meant life. It has meant vitality, prosperity, a breath of fresh air, a rush of calm; it has meant the foundation of food, freshwater, or to Arctic communities, the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” Robbing communities of their ocean robs them of their everything. The ocean is everything – but it is not a global dumping station, and this is our opportunity to resist.
This Article Was Written with the Following Sources:
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