Lost Horizon

Book cover
The Tarball Chroniclesby By David GessnerMilkweed Editions. 272p $24

In the summer of 2010, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon well began spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental writer David Gessner jumped in his car and drove from his North Carolina home down to the gulf to discover for himself the effects of the spill on the local environment, both natural and human. He wanted to experience the story for himself, he explains, “instead of letting the national media take me on its knee, like a kindly uncle, and tell me its sweet and homogenized version of the truth.”

Gessner’s account of his journey blazes out with a fiery, pugilistic style that fits well with this objective. He is an appealing and very personal narrator, one who readily acknowledges his own biases and compromises—such as motoring around the Gulf Coast while critiquing the fuel industry—and does not hesitate to report that he usually carries a few beers in his backpack when he heads out into the wilderness.

Mixing personal reflection with reportage and research, Gessner narrates his encounters with a variety of gulf residents and experts on his journey, from restaurant waiters and beach workers to scientists and film crews, asking hard questions and observing everything he can. He confronts authorities, consults with experts in a variety of fields and offers clear and often moving descriptions of the natural world of the gulf.

What Gessner discovers from his quest, of course, is an oil company behaving badly. While the British oil company BP makes a tremendous show of activity in response to the spill, he finds much of it questionably effective or ethically problematic. The company hires many residents of the gulf who have been put out of work by the oily waters, for example, to lay booms around spill patches—a very short-term solution rendered useless by a storm or strong wind. In exchange for this work, however, anyone who accepts a paycheck from BP signs a contract that prevents them from speaking about the spill or their work.

But hoping readers will be outraged by ethical breaches like this one may be Gessner’s most difficult challenge now. The much-feared disastrous consequences of the spill, after all, mostly failed to materialize. Almost immediately after the well was capped, television commercials began to assure the American public that the Gulf Coast was “open for business,” and President Obama seemed to confirm this sentiment when, on a family vacation to the gulf in August of 2010, he took a swim in the waters of Florida’s Panama City beach.

In the face of this public sanitizing of the oil and its aftereffects, Gessner’s book offers two reasons why we should still care about what happened in the gulf—and what continues to happen there.

First, very practically, Gessner argues that the long-term effects of the spill may continue to play out for years to come. One of the major strategies BP employed in response to the spill was to cover it with a chemical dispersant. This seemed to work quite well for removing oil from the surface of the water.

As Gessner points out, however, the chemical used in this process is one banned in BP’s home country of England, and the experts he questions about the dispersant—as well as the gulf residents he talks to—suspect that this dispersal activity has simply pushed both the oil and the chemical out of sight and mind. They both likely remain somewhere beneath the water’s surface, at the bottom of the gulf, making their way into the diet of the seafloor dwellers who will eventually end up, through the long route of the food chain, on our dinner plates.

Second, and more important, Gessner wants us to question the consumption habits that have led us to rely so heavily on oil that we are miles out into the waters of the gulf, drilling with all our might for every last drop of oil we can find, risking human life (11 workers were killed when the Deepwater rig exploded) and the environment in the process.

To drive home this point, Gessner moves beyond the question of oil to call us to account for a host of unsustainable human practices, both personal and societal. One long section of the book, for example, analyzes our mania for building houses on beaches—and then, when erosion and wind take their natural toll on those houses, undertaking extensive and environmentally destructive pains to defend them. Readers will not soon forget Gessner’s bewildered account of massive diggers and dump trucks hauling sand from the uninhabited side of an island to the populated one, as public workers shore up the beachfront property that buttresses the foundations of local trophy homes.

This image perhaps serves as the most fitting illustration of Gessner’s thesis. Take a bucket of sand to expand your beachfront property, and on some other beach an animal loses its nesting ground; hop in your car for a cross-country vacation, and the planet warms up a bit more; fuel a national mania for development and material acquistion, and a gulf gets sacrificed in the process.

“On this planet,” Gessner writes, “nothing is apart from anything else—all of us, human, plant, animal—intertwined.”

His journey around the Gulf of Mexico offers us a powerful and sobering reminder that whether or not we feel the direct effects of the oil spill in our backyards, we are all implicated, all compromised, and—most important for Gessner—all connected.

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