Before taking the stage to give her illustrated talk at Town Hall on Thursday (April 28), Antonia Juhasz (EWE-has) put one image on the screen for audience members to see as they slowly took their seats. The photograph of a brown pelican covered completely in oil felt familiar, of course. We were bombarded with similar images last year following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting BP oil spill. I use the word “bombarded” because, since the media was so limited in their coverage of the disaster (a symptom of BP’s Orwellian PR tactics), I remember the few images they did get being played on a haunting loop.
But there is always something new to consider if you look at something a little longer.
In this image, the bird’s mouth is open, and while its outstretched wings are weighted down by the oil that has completely glued together the typically sculptural, individuated feathers into something like a giant horrible mustache — its muscles betray the effort to raise them, to lift itself out of the grime. The bird fights to live, despite the hopelessly brown waves crashing around it – with no one there to help it.
This metaphor for an ongoing and discouraging struggle in the Gulf is what Juhasz’s new book is all about.
Juhasz, a seasoned policy analyst and author of two previous books (The Bu$h Agenda and The Tyranny of Oil), lives in San Francisco and doesn’t drive. She calls herself an anti-oil activist. But she is also a shareholder with BP. This grants her access to annual shareholders meetings — a prime stage for communicating with invested listeners, when they let her speak— and gaining insight into the workings of these incomprehensibly powerful corporations.
On Earth Day this year, she released her third book, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill (Wiley), not coincidentally in concert with the one year anniversary of the BP oil spill.
Thoroughly reported in a remarkably short amount of time, this book cleanly pieces together what must be the closest any layman can come to a firsthand account of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and a comprehensive overview of the spill’s aftereffects in the communities that remain along the Gulf Coast.
Because it describes a story that we all know the ending to, and have heard pieces of at least a hundred times on the news, it’s remarkable that Juhasz is able to capture suspense and new insight into this drama. The book calls to mind Jack Olsen’s The Night of the Grizzlies, which traces the events leading up to horrific 1967 bear attacks in Glacier National Park — and in that telling, weaves a crucial message about how people, not bears, caused the real terror.
In a crisp narrative, Juhasz takes you onto Deepwater Horizon before the explosion and then, moment by moment after: from off-duty crew members being jolted awake by the blast, to “wraith-like” streams of gas working their way through the boat, to men being incinerated while trying to save the well, to the drug tests that were required of the survivors before they could rest, sleep, or see their families once getting to shore.
And then she goes on shore, where the damage continues to spill over long after the well is finally capped.
She introduces us to the families of men that died on the rig (11 total were killed); she takes us into claims processing offices, where only one-thired of the filed claims have been paid out by BP. She points to the immigrant and indigenous stories, and to the small businesses and church congregations struggling to survive without tourism and without fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters.
A Laotian-American describes his typical duties as a crab picker (before the spill); it is mind-numbing and physically crippling work. It is similar to how a BP claims processor complains about her own work: They both have the freedom to take breaks whenever they want, but how can they, when the overwhelming tasks facing them will just seem bigger upon return? All characters in the book are facing what they perceive as an unbeatable monster (Juhasz’s nickname for the oil spill). It’s hopeless — and, like the pelican, hard to face.
But Juhasz perseveres and maps a sampling of the human ecosystem of the Gulf Cost so we can at least see it see how the people there impact us and how we impact them.
Juhasz also exposes the astoundingly widespread negligence — really, it’s dumbfounding — that ultimately set the stage for the explosion and uncontrollable spill. “The oil industry promised us that they knew what to do in the event of a disaster,” she said during her talk. “They didn’t. Not a single oil company knew what to do” in the face of the BP oil spill.
She also helps us see in clear focus, the health effects of exposure to oil and toxic chemical dispersants, some predictable and some not, depression and suicide among them. One man suffers so much stress from losing his job and all hope of re-employment that he has a heart attack on his front porch.
And of course, she takes us into the Obama administration, saying at Town Hall that the Obama administration is “unimmune to the wealth of the oil industry.”
But for all her unflinching analysis of the mistakes and arrogant inaction of BP and other corporations, she doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook either.
One of the most powerful aspects of Juhasz’s new book is the effective illustration of how this disaster — like all those that came before and that will inevitably come in the future — points to a shared responsibility to find alternatives to oil dependency.
But benign complicity is a beast perhaps more powerful than an oil spill. Rig workers do what they’re told in situations they know are wrong because the paycheck is good. American citizens consumed more oil than ever last year, in spite of knowing the terrible environmental and social effects (war being just one among them).
She doesn’t defend the oil industry in the book, but she doesn’t rest at an easy conclusion about the evil of the industry.
At the end of her presentation, she told us: The oil industries are only as bad as we let them be.
And she equated the profit-hungry oil companies to children on a playground with no parents; instead of being on a sugar rush, they’re driven wild with greed. They exhibit bad behavior because they can, because there’s no one to stop them or tell them they shouldn’t.
“I’m a realist,” Juhasz says. She knows Americans cannot end our dependency on oil tomorrow. But, she adds: “If we’re going to be dependent on their resource, we need to be the parents of it. We need to say: There are some places you want to go, but you can’t go there.”
In other words, participation and organization, driven by hope, can counter the lobbying efforts (and, now, the unlimited campaign contributions to political elections) of the oil industry. After all, Juhasz pointed out, it was the community organizing after the Santa Barbara spill in 1969 that saw the passing of important and lasting legislation that helps regulate what oil companies can do.
And it will be community organizing again that makes the important changes Deepwater Horizon has shown are needed.
Or, maybe the organized response won’t happen.
And, if that’s the case, eventually, everyone will know the suffering that the pelicans and Gulf Coast residents have had to endure.