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The political life of the environment

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What caused the oil spills in the south of the country? Sabotage? A failure of maintenance? Human error? Natural seepage? Is Petrotrin culpable, as the EMA says? Are there other factors still to be known? A cover-up, even? Depending on who’s talking, the answers vary. While we wait and hope for independent answers, the oil spill provides an opportunity to think about the political life of the environment and what can be salvaged from this disaster.


In writing about the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, anthropologist David Bond noted that: “Disasters are made manageable by an extreme narrowing of the range of interpretation and acceptable evidence.” By this he meant that the “environment”—a complex interconnected system—is reduced to a singular entity, and an oil disaster a single event. This leads the general populace to see the disaster through simplistic notions of an oil spill, which can be contained by “science.”


Look for oil on the surface of the water, on land, and any damage to seabirds and animals. Once these have all been tackled, the clean-up is supposedly over. In this sense, a government, alongside the hydrocarbon industry, can be seen to take charge of events and supposedly manage the problem. The logic being: we have identified the problem and we will now fix it. In this sense, the environment takes on a political life to be easily solved by scientists and technocrats.