One year to the day before Katrina struck, I was in Mr B’s Bistro in the French Quarter of New Orleans. My sister, cousin and I were having a drink at the bar as we waited for our table. I’d dreamt about this meal for months-Gulf shrimp barbecued in their shells, served with creamy stone-ground grits and I was sermonising about the superiority of Gulf shrimp over All Other Shrimps, when I heard a voice as solemn as postman Cliff Clavin in Cheers: ‘Better eat ‘em while you can.’ I tried to let this remark just hang there, but I couldn’t quite manage it. ‘Because…?’ ‘Because, each year, a swathe of the Gulf of Mexico becomes so devoid of shrimp and fish that it’s known as the Dead Zone,’ he replied.
It turned out that this Cliff wasn’t a postman, but a coastal ecologist from Washington monitoring a large body of lifeless water in the Gulf. I didn’t encourage him, but he explained that the main culprit is the residue of agricultural fertiliser and chicken manure that flows into the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river basins, which stream into the Gulf of Mexico. Using napkins and straws, he demonstrated how the rivers drain about half of all the USA land area and account for nearly 90% of the freshwater run-off into the Gulf. Just as I was thinking ‘of all the juke joints in New Orleans, I would find myself sitting next to a prophet of doom’, he caught my attention. ‘It’s the size of New Jersey,’ he said.‘What is?’ ‘The Dead Zone,’ he said. ‘And it’s getting bigger.’
He told me how the nitrogen depletes the oxygen in the ocean and that he was part of a team trying to restore the natural wetlands, ‘the oxygen mask of the Gulf of Mexico’. But he saved his real gloom for last. It didn’t really matter what he and his team did, he said, because all their efforts would be undone by ‘Big Oil’. He used three words over and over again: ignorance, arrogance, greed. He reckoned it was ignorant-and arrogant-to think that you could remotely guide a drill through a mile of water onto the seabed and then squirrel a 12in path through five miles of sand, salt, clay and rock. But ‘greed makes men arrogant,’ he said, and, like the perfect bar-stool prophet, warned us that arrogance clouds the mind against long-term consequences.
By the time our table was ready, I was relieved to leave Cliff at the bar. But, for weeks now, I’ve wished I knew his real name. He was a man who had foreseen the science-fiction night-mare of a trillion gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf, and he tried to warn anyone who’d listen. Of course, I wonder what I’d have done differently if I had listened. Would I have spent less time in a car? Would I have cut the fertiliser use on my farm? Would I have replaced family reunions in New Orleans with sessions on Skype? Would I have got rid of my oil-fired Aga?
I grew up 100 miles from where the oil is washing up on the Louisiana coast. It’s the same area where Forrest Gump went to fulfil the dream of his dead friend and fellow soldier ‘Bubba’ Blue, who yearned to return home from Vietnam and become a shrimper. June is the peak shrimp season in Bayou La Batre (pronounced Balla Batree). Now, it has a fishing ban and a shoreline graveyard of sea turtles.
Meanwhile, I feel like Cliff. I’m desperate to say something sensible, something that would make a difference, but I suspect I’m just boring anyone unlucky enough to be sitting beside me. And one thought sticks in my mind. When BP first announced that 5,000 barrels a day were gushing out, a reporter calculated that it represented about two minutes of oil consumption in the state of Texas. Now we know it’s more like 25,000 barrels a day. That’s 10 minutes of oil consumption in Texas. I keep hearing Cliff’s flat voice. Greed. Arrogance. Ignorance.
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