Carl Safina Revisits an Environmental Crisis


Carl Safina

by Courtney M. Holbrook

After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 and the subsequent oil spill that affected the coastal U.S. for months, fears of an environmental disaster spread across the country in almost apocalyptic proportions.

Politicians, members of the media and people everywhere wondered whether oil giant British Petroleum, from whose well the spill emanated, had initiated a disaster that would destroy flora, fauna and individual lives with no hope of repair.

Initially, Dr. Carl Safina, a world-renowned ecologist and marine conservationist and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, pondered similar theories. Could the spill be the disaster to shock all others?

“Before the spill ended, we didn’t know the dimensions of the event,” Safina said. “So, there was a lot of panic. It was such a chaotic time.”

After the spill, Random House asked Safina, the author of well-received books such as “The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World” and “Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival,” to write about his experiences in the Gulf. That chronicle became “A Sea in Flames,” which was released on the anniversary of the explosion. On Saturday, July 23 at 6 p.m., Safina, who lives in Amagansett, reads from “A Sea in Flames” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.

“A Sea in Flames” discusses the facts behind the spill, and the problems concerning the clean-up process and BP’s corporate response. In the end, Safina argues that ecological pollution and the release of fossil fuels through daily life into the atmosphere continue to cause more damage to the ocean than that caused by the oil spill. These toxic fuels, he says, release “carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The oils we’re burning aren’t diluting, they’re actually concentrating in the atmosphere. This is an environmental catastrophe that will cause — has already begun to cause — overwhelming problems.”

It is this ultimate conclusion that drives “A Sea in Flames” — the mismanagement of a “cutting corners culture” and lackadaisical attitude to ecological preservation that characterized the spill will lead us to even greater future problems than the spill itself, according to Safina.

The three-part structure of the book follows Safina’s personal realizations of the truths of the spill. The first part concerns the causes of the explosion. As has been well documented, BP has been accused of not taking proper safety precautions to prevent the disaster, causing more than 53,000 barrels of oil a day to gush out until it was stopped on July 15, 2010.

The second part of the book discusses what happened when the oil was flowing, and the emotional consequences of this event. Safina notes there were tremendous “psychological effects on the fishermen and people living [on the Gulf].” He also discusses the efforts he says BP took to prevent journalists from following the event.

After the stoppage comes the perspective — answering the question of what toll the disaster took on the Gulf of Mexico and the men and women who live off its oceans. As of now, some of the worst predictions have not happened. Indeed, fishermen who feared their livelihoods would be dashed forever have returned to the Gulf.

For Safina, writing “A Sea in Flames” was a harsher experience. Unlike the process with his previous works, where the discussion of environmental hazards and life on the ocean took an almost reflective tone, this book is angry.

Some of the “enraged” tone came from the difference in the book’s theme. “A Sea in Flames” deals with a disaster of technology, where a man-made structure caused biological damage. His previous books have dealt more with man’s immediate effects on biology.

Anger also came from the carelessness Safina saw from BP and other officials. Less concern was shown for the victims of the spill, he says, than for monetary downturns BP faced. That constant emotional intensity took its toll.

“It’s an enraged book, and that’s a very different tone for me,” Safina said. “And it was very hard to be so angry for several months in a row. It was a relief to know there was a deadline in sight.”

Though the deadline has come and gone, Safina will continue to remember the lessons of the spill and the conservation issues facing Americans today. He believes another spill is “absolutely inevitable.” Although he cannot say whether safety has improved in the equipment, he believes the mass hunger for oil in America continues to lead us down dangerous paths to find it.

“All the easy places are tapped out now,” Safina said. “We’re having to go into more difficult places with deeper water, harsher conditions.”

Now, Safina is taking a break from books. Instead, he is working on his television documentary series for PBS entitled “Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina.” After an intense year of writing, the PBS series provides a welcome respite. But no matter the medium,

Safina intends to continue his quest to save the oceans from mankind’s harmful practices.

“When it comes to oil, our own addiction to it will hurt the ocean,” he said. “Hopefully, next time we’ll spend less time cleaning off birds and more time changing our habits and addictions.”