In “A Plea for Earthly Sciences,” his 2007 talk to the British Sociological Association, the French theorist Bruno Latour asked why the mounting scientific evidence of environmental destruction has failed to motivate people to make the changes that are necessary to preserve the planet earth and its inhabitants.
I have often asked the same question. When I tell people, usually friends and family, to avoid plastic, margarine, and nonstick pans, to resist the urge to douse themselves with antibacterial products, and to quit gardening with toxic pesticides, I offer scientific evidence to back up my claims that they are hurting themselves and hurting the planet. When my friends and family ignore my advice, I wonder if they are rejecting science or rejecting me. But perhaps I fail because I frame my requests as negative imperatives. Do not drink Crystal Light. Do not put plastic in the microwave. Quit using plug-in air fresheners.
Rather than the rhetoric of denial, we need to explore alternative forms of persuasion as well as alternative forms of power. In “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout,” Carl Safina harnesses the forces of scientific and narrative discourse to capture the human and the sublime scale of the oil-drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This tactic, while at times jarring, achieves the difficult dual goals of drawing attention to ongoing environmental degradation and illustrating hope.
To resolve our environmental crisis, according to Mr. Latour, we must act as “earthlings”: his term for beings who depend on the survival of the earth for our own survival. Earthling consciousness asks us to rethink the relationship between nature and culture. Mr. Safina, known locally and globally as an ecologist, naturalist, activist, and writer, takes the 2010 disaster in the gulf as an opportunity to tackle the enduring question of that relationship.
Part explication of the technological and scientific aspects of oil drilling and ocean ecology; part analysis of the social, cultural, and economic features of the crisis; part manifesto, and part moral tale, Mr. Safina’s book shows the complexity of the catastrophe with a depth that matches the depth at which the oil spill occurred. Because he captures the cavernous, dizzying complexity of the blowout and situates the event among the shifting human-nature relationships surrounding the cause of the blowout and its aftermath, Mr. Safina’s work is an example of earthly science. He asks us to rethink our relationship to nature. He asks us to act like earthlings.
“A Sea in Flames”
Mr. Safina clearly details the events and attitudes that led to the blowout: a combination of greed-induced haste and technological mishaps. He mourns the death of the 11 men who were aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded. He also documents the personal, cultural, and economic effects on people living in the gulf region: people whose way of life functionally ended, for a time, as the oil spill put a stop to the fishing, tourism, and oil drilling that buoy the region. Furthermore, he offers an accurate picture of the toll of approximately 206 million gallons of oil accidentally released into the ocean: home to plankton, saragassum, oysters, shrimp, crabs, pelicans, gulls, plovers, tuna, mahimahi, sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks, among others, some injured, some killed by the oil and the cleanup efforts.
His conclusion suggests somewhat different concerns: “The real fire-breathing dragon, the real dangerous demon, lurking on the surface all along, can be located in the mirror.” What Mr. Safina acutely points out is that the oil blowout, while certainly a problem of grave magnitude, is not the true problem. The true problem is our everyday reliance on oil. As he writes, “Plan A, burning the oil — and coal, and gas — in our engines is continually adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the inconceivable rate of a thousand tons a second, billions of tons a year. That spill is invisible.”
Mr. Safina employs a history to locate responsibility within the realm of human choices: “The cheapest energy that has ever powered America was slavery. Energy is always a moral issue.” With this move, he reminds us that we are capable of change. The question, then, is how to enact it.
Recently I took a class that offered answers to this question. Called “How to Redesign the World,” it extrapolated lessons from “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” a visionary novel by Starhawk, who led weekly discussions with guests such as Van Jones, who works on green economic initiatives in the White House, and Carolyne Stayton of the Transition Network U.S.A., a movement to help communities achieve local resilience by reducing dependence on oil. Each of these leaders emphasizes what we gain in terms of pleasure and community when we choose alternatives to fossil fuels and the consumer culture they support. Carl Safina shows us that we really have no other viable alternatives. We are the ones who must act.
Carl Safina, co-founder and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, is the author of “Voyage of the Turtle” and, most recently, “The View From Lazy Point.” He lives in Amagansett.
Stephanie Wade, who teaches at Rowan University in New Jersey, will be an assistant professor of writing at Unity College in Maine in the fall. She lives part time in East Hampton.