by Danielle Steer
I recently read that your 20s are a defining decade in regards to a person’s development. As I near the end of my 20s and reflect, one summer stands out among the rest.
In April of 2010, the world held its breath as millions of gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Eleven of the rig’s 126 crewmembers died while numerous more were injured. Unabated for nearly three months, the spill shut down the local fishing industry, polluting the valuable and fragile Gulf Coast ecosystem and endangering wildlife, marine animals, and the livelihoods of thousands of coastal residents.
Based in Mobile, Alabama, I worked as a Wildlife Rehabilitation Technician with International Bird Rescue. Throughout the summer, I was engrossed with the environmental tragedy and immediate impacts of the spill on the local wildlife. I washed pelicans and seagulls, I cared for common loons and northern gannets and I learned about emergency response, herd health, and the high value of water for coastal residents.
At the same time, Margaret Brown, a Peabody Award winning documentarian and Alabama native, was receiving pictures of oil booms and oil slick water from her father, a retired shrimper. “It was so depressing,” she remembers, “I felt so powerless … I felt like I just had to do something.” That something is a powerful documentary entitled The Great Invisible, a film that explores the fallout of the disaster on the people in the Gulf Coast.
When I sat down with Brown to talk about the movie, we realized there were a lot of parallels in our vastly different experiences. While I became acquainted with the wildlife of the Gulf Coast and the recovery of the environment, Brown had a unique opportunity to get to know the people of the coast, the stories of the rig workers, and the impact on local communities.
“Water is such a part of the way of life down there,” she tells me. “A lot of people’s relaxing time is spent on the water … certainly my family. It’s inextricable from life on the coast … The despair is that the quality of life would be gone. If the water is gone then it’s gone. If the seafood is gone it’s a dead coast. I think the environmental impacts are ongoing. It’s really hard to say right now what’s the fallout … it’s still happening.” In 2013, over 4.6 million pounds of oily material was collected on the Gulf Coast shoreline and over 106,465 tons has been collected since 2010.
The hotels and restaurants in Mobile were happy to have hundreds of relief workers as patrons in their businesses with BP picking up the tab. But I often heard locals remark, “What happens when y’all leave? Nobody is going to want to go to the beach - tourists or locals. What will we do?”
Brown honed in on this concern in the movie with stories from shrimp workers, oyster shuckers, and tug boat owners, all concerned about what would happen in the months following the spill and cleanup. “Those people need jobs,” she explains, “and that’s why the oil industry is so complicated in the south.”
Moody's Analytics Economist Chris Lafakis estimates there are nearly 12,500 people working in off-shore oil drilling in the US. BP reports that they directly employ more than 2,300 people in the Gulf of Mexico right now. Brown points out, “In the south, at least before this, there was this blind trust in the industry because it created so many jobs that were good jobs that could provide for families. And then this happened. And there’s no longer that blind trust.”
While working in the Gulf, we both became hyper sensitive about oil consumption. When the majority of your conversations and experiences are centered around oil, you start to realize to what extent we really are dependent upon oil. As Latham Smith, a Tugboat Captain, states in the movie, “[People] want a car they can drive any damn time they want to. They want a light bulb they can turn on any time they want to. They want air conditioning they can turn on when it’s hot, not just when the wind blows.”
But oil is not just necessary for the cars in our communities. So much of our daily life is associated with oil in some capacity. In the US, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles – by plane or truck – between farm and plate. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2010, 191 barrels of crude oil byproducts were used in the production of plastics alone. Plastic bags are made from oil - it takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags, and the U.S. goes through 380 billion of them a year.
Brown hopes that her film will bring our excessive use of oil to the forefront of our consciousness. She tells me, “I hope that [people] will feel galvanized to start a conversation about all the things we don’t understand about oil. There is this factory under the Gulf of Mexico that we don’t even think about how we are connected. Making the movie, for me, it was this wake-up call to all the things we can do working together to make a difference … you can’t do it on your own.”
That same summer I spent in Alabama, I met my husband. His father is a geologist and previously worked at BP for 27 years. Before I went down to the Gulf, I felt as though I was somehow betraying my value system by falling in love with an “oil family.”
But the reality is that my father-in-law, the rig workers, and the oil company employees are not bad people. “The villain is us,” Margaret tells me. “We are the ones asking for [oil], not those guys. It’s very easy to point the finger at them. They’re the suppliers and we’re the ones using the drug.” I now find myself defending the industry and my family as a direct result of my experience washing oil and dispersant off of birds that summer.
There is a lot that we as consumers can do, like not forgetting our reusable bags when we go shopping and refilling a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing single use plastic. As Brown points out, “There are all these people acting at great risk to give us our comfort. If you understand it more it leads to making changes.”
The Great Invisible opens October 29 in Los Angeles and New York and won Best Documentary at 2014's South by Southwest. -Ed.
About the author: Hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, Danielle Steer graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a Master of Public Administration. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from MIIS, Danielle worked in Peru developing financial strategies for a group of indigenous women in the Sacred Valley. She now serves as the Enrollment Manager for the International Environmental Policy, International Policy, and Public Administration programs at MIIS.