In graduate school, I study oceanography. And within this field, the tiny, single-celled organisms known as phytoplankton. My favorite 1-liner when in a crowd, “Did you know that 1 in every 2 breaths you take was generated by phytoplankton?” It’s a definite crowd-pleaser. What I do not study are whales, dolphins, or seabirds, although I do enjoy learning about them. And contrary to my family’s popular beliefs, I also do not study oil spills. When it comes to off-shore drilling, resource management and energy policy, I have my opinions, but am far from an expert. Last week I headed home for a friends/family Tour de Force. Although prepared to catch up on weddings, graduations and bonding time, I hadn’t prepared myself to become my family’s source for all things oil spill.
And yet there I was, discussing the environmental impacts, outcomes and tragedies of oil-slicked birds to my relatives. The first time I was asked about the spill, I stumbled for words. When my friend asked, “So, how do you feel about the spill?” my first instinct was to say, “I’m horrified, sad, outraged.” What was I supposed to say? Truthfully, I had been avoiding reading the news for weeks. The sight of suffering wildlife, polluted marshlands, and lost livelihoods made my stomach drop. Of course I was outraged, and so first, came the emotional response. Not surprisingly, everyone looked at me with blank stares, as if to say, “Well, duh.”
My next approach was to highlight some of the science that I was aware of. I always threw in a qualifier first, such as, “I study algae, mind you.” I started by discussing ocean circulation patterns; the possibility of the oil reaching the Atlantic Ocean; the effects on aquaculture; the loss of fish habitat. I was ad-libbing, learning as I went, and practicing a skill that we often overlook while in graduate school, science communication. As I continued to visit friends and family, my response became more concise. But, my audience still wanted something more. There was an underlying need for hope or some suggestion on how they could help. Just as they were desperate for information, they also seemed hungry for optimism.
Although I find the Gulf situation extremely upsetting (I don’t expect rainbows and unicorns to appear in the area anytime soon), I forced myself to find something; some sound byte, similar to my phytoplankton 1-liner. “It was only a matter of time, BP is the unfortunate one; it could have happened to any of them,” I would say, followed by, “Hopefully, this will force us to reconsider our offshore drilling regulations.” This message resonated well with my audience, as they shook their heads ‘yes’. They also seemed to understand that our relationship to oil and to our environment is extremely fragile, and often taken for granted. Not only was the science of the spill reaching them, but the consequences, too. As I drew from the long list of potential impacts, it appeared that everyone was aware of at least 1 tragic consequence: fisheries have been shut down, causing an immense blow to the economy of the Gulf states; 1 of 2 fragile breeding grounds for the threatened blue fin tuna has been tarnished; communities that thrive on tourism have been vacated due to tar balls washing onshore.
The Gulf Oil Spill crosses energy, the environment, policy, and economics with one another, and it serves as an excellent platform for much-needed change through public outreach. We can’t undo the damage that we have caused in the Gulf, at least not immediately, but we can look to the future and protect what resources we have left. As scientists, we can educate ourselves on the environmental impacts of the spill, at least enough to provide the public (or our friends and family) with the information they so-desperately seek, as well as with that 1-liner, the small nugget of hope. It’s not pretty, it is devastating, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to cause the public to reassess its priorities.
Sara Bender is a graduate student studying oceanography at the University of Washington.
For information and insightful blogging on the Gulf Oil Spill: