In a recent Planetizen post I argued that the unfolding oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may be perhaps our last warning to move more aggressively on renewable energy and a less energy-dependent built environment. What follows is an effort to outline additional implications for planning, to gain an understanding of the scale of this emergency and how it may impact planning in the months and years to come. Ecologically, economically and socially this is going to be like nothing we've ever seen before.
The oil eruption has the potential to wipe out hundreds of species in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The habitats now being deluged with oil and toxic dispersants are incredibly complex and diverse, with feedback mechanisms and webs of interdependency we only partially understand. What the loss of these habitats will mean for the ecology of the whole continent can only be guessed at.
Public health too is at risk: already cleanup workers are falling ill from the fumes from the oil and dispersants. We should bear in mind that this crisis is unfolding just as hurricane season is getting underway. The fear is that powerful storm surges of the sort that flooded New Orleans would now contain millions of gallons of oil and untold quantities of highly toxic dispersant that could contaminate coastal states far inland. It is estimated that surges could drive oil 12 miles upriver, and owing to the counterclockwise motion of hurricanes will mean that Florida will be especially vulnerable to massive quantities of pollutants.
If we see inland flooding as we did with Katrina, when surges travelled as far inland as six miles and over 90,000 square miles of coastal land was declared a Federal disaster area, then impacts on public health, agriculture and ecosystems would be incalculable, and would likely require mass evacuations prior to the storm and perhaps turn millions into environmental refugees. The logistics required to house these populations and remediate contaminated lands -- if this could even be effected, given the unknown extent of the toxicity of the dispersal agents being used -- would become a huge concern for planners.
Other social impacts will arise from a loss of economic viability. The fishing industry is already reeling from shutdowns, and the impacts on tourism promise to be devastating as well. As blogger Russell Longcore notes, the livelihoods of millions of people are now endangered through direct damages and an inability of insurance policies to meet demand:
Tens of thousands of Gulf Coast businesses will cease operations in the months to come. Banks that hold loans and mortgages on those businesses as well as the loans and mortgages of the employees now thrown out of work will suffer financial losses. Hundreds of thousands of coastal [residents] will be unemployed. Cars will be repossessed. Home foreclosures will escalate. Credit card companies will hold uncollectible accounts .And we haven't even left the Gulf of Mexico yet. If the Gulf Stream moves the oil up the Eastern Seaboard, multiply all these predictions by an X factor.
The economic ripples then will not just be confined to coastal states but could extend into Maritime Canada and perhaps into the international economy. Community economic development efforts of all kinds are going to be badly needed; yet it will be years, if ever, before such could make a dent in repairing the gaps in what is at present the Gulf's $230 billion economy.
What may be of even greater endurance, however, is the emotional toll being taken in this disaster -- what Joanna Macy calls "environmental despair." I live in Winnipeg, near the geographic centre of North America and about as far as one can get from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Yet myself and many of the people I have talked to here about this are sickened and depressed by the disaster, some claiming difficulty sleeping. I can only imagine how terrible a blow this disaster is to those who live in the affected states. In the months and years ahead, planners dealing with the aftermath of the leak will be working with a traumatized public who have lost not just their way of life, but their cherished places as well, with their futures and those of their children in doubt.
Add to this the political ramifications -- a public infuriated at endless failure and the cozy relationship between governments and the oil industry -- and we can see that the fallout will likely be cross-sectoral, extensive, enduring and extremely unpredictable. And we must also take into account the international ramifications - the potential for the slick to devastate Caribbean nations and Latin America.
Indeed, the ecological nightmare in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster of such colossal scale, there may be no "recovery" to be had in any sense we understand the term. The implications for planning threaten to be profound.
UPDATE (June 4th): Computer models newly released indicate that the oil slick is projected to round Florida and head up the eastern seaboard to North Carolina before being swept into the Atlantic and towards Europe.