Skip to content

Searching for answers, back in Macondo

Ten years ago, almost to the day, disaster struck. The rig exploded, the pipe burst, eleven people breathed their last breaths, Macondo crude rushed up from the deep to the light of day.

This story might be getting old for those who have read my blog before: Everything here always links back to the Deepwater Horizon spill (and to Macondo), and I can imagine you might think while reading this: Really? Even now you’re bringing that up? Doesn’t that seem a little tone-deaf to the global crisis we are facing? I bring it up because it is my point of reference, the event I have dedicated the past year of my life to understanding.

I came to graduate school knowing that the work I would do here was all about the catastrophic. All about understanding and preparing for disasters that happen maybe once in a decade. Disasters that are like lightning: You know it will strike, but when? Where? I also hoped that this kind of work might inform not just the moments of what we perceive to be disaster, the moments that cause immediate human death and obvious vast destruction, but also the prelude to the disaster: the chronic, sublethal mini-disasters that crescendo into something greater. For me, that means understanding the general behavior of anthropogenic organic chemicals that are polluting the environment all the time, pollution that might not be obvious, on a day-to-day basis, but that I know has the potential to boil over into a disaster like Deepwater Horizon. I imagine many of my classmates studying processes related to climate change feel similarly. I imagine many of my classmates also have moments when they breathe in sharply and wonder—when is the next moment when things boil over for us? When is the next moment when our mini-disasters morph into something obviously terrifying and dangerous for a large number of people? The next fire season in California? The next hurricane in Texas or the Northeast? The next season of ice melt in the Arctic?

There are nights when I’ve prayed selfishly that the next Big Disaster—the next Really Big One, whatever that means—would wait until I’ve lived out my life. Like anyone, I’d like to live and die believing that the world is kind, believing that the world will answer my prayers, believing that my (secular, in my case) prayers have the power to protect myself and the people I love. Keep them safe. Please, if asking nicely counts for anything. Just keep them safe.

There are also nights, including some recently, when I think that the Big Disaster has already struck, and I am living on the other side of it, on borrowed time. These are hard nights.

These are hard nights for all of us.

I search, in my scientific training, for a way to understand the crisis we are living right now. I think I should be able to find it there—shouldn’t I? Isn’t that what learning environmental chemistry was all about, from the beginning? How to use basic science to understand environmental hazards, how to assess risk, how to respond to environmental disasters when they do happen. That is what I loved about it, from the beginning—the power of that framework. The insight it gives me into the mechanisms of environmental processes. That is what I still love about it.

Something I learned from that framework, something that still inspires me, every time I think about it, is the connectivity of environmental systems. Someone without training in environmental chemistry might see an oil spill in the ocean and think the problem is all in the water—but things aren’t so simple. The molecules in oil are dynamic—they are interacting with their environment in ways we can’t see. Some of them evaporate—now we have lost 30% of the oil literally into thin air. Some of them sink to the ocean floor—now we have biological communities deep in the ocean that are being poisoned. Some of them transform into new molecules with different properties. Methods of oil fingerprinting can link the source of Macondo oil to what ended up on beaches, or on the seafloor, even after chemical transformations. The point is that everything is connected, nothing is isolated. The oil is not contained; it is moving and transforming. We can use our scientific tools to predict how and why this will happen, and how fast.

Right now, with the current Big Disaster, I see many others coming around to this way of thinking, the understanding that everything is connected. We are connected. Individual actions have an impact on the collective. Dare I add, the individual has a responsibility to consider their impact on the collective. I know nothing about epidemiology, but I think I can guess that the framework epidemiologists use to understand the spread of infection is analogous to the framework I use to understand the behavior of chemicals in the environment. They, too, spend their days looking at connectivity. Only for them, the connections they care about are not between wave and sand, sun and oil slick, but the connections between people. Now, they are sharing what they know about those human connections with the rest of us, and begging us to listen. It is startling and upsetting to see so many of us become conscious of our dependence on human connection and on social (and economic, and political) support systems in the moment when we must deliberately rupture or reinvent many of those connections in order to protect one another.

I can use my scientific training to understand the guidelines that medical and public health professionals have laid out for us. I can use my scientific training to tell myself, Follow these rules. Don’t give into hysteria. Follow the rules to keep yourself and others safe. In this, my scientific training serves me well. My scientific training does not help me with the psychological impact of the situation. It does not help me when I wake up at four in the morning, heart racing, fearing for the health of my family spread across the country. It does not help when I wonder how long this will last, or what the long-term impacts on my family, my home city, my country, will be. I’m not sure yet what does help with that. Still working on that.

But I have added one prayer, on top of my other, secular prayers: Please let us get through this, and please let people remember what this is like. On the other side of this Big Disaster, I pray that people will remember how damaging—damaging to the point of ridiculousness, and also damaging to the point of death—it is to disregard our individual connections with the collective. We need to understand that connection. We need to understand that our individual actions are not confined to our own little lives, that we depend on the actions of others. No man is a self-made man, no ship is sailed without a crew. No Big Disaster is resolved without an acceptance of collective responsibility.

So, I pray at night:

Please keep them safe.

Please let us get through this.

Please let us remember.