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22 February 1996

Oil Spills and Ecodoom Mongers

The spillage of 70 000 tonnes of crude oil into the sea off west Wales is undoubtedly a problem for local fishermen, the local tourist industry and those who take pleasure in observing some of the rare species of bird which inhabit the area. But is it really the 'environmental disaster' that many have claimed, asks John Gillott?

Every oil spillage these days becomes the pretext for another round of breast-beating by environmental experts and green activists. Yet their grim warnings of 'environmental disaster' ignore a few key points:

1. The dark predictions of irreparable damage to the local environment which followed every oil spillage of recent years have all been proved wrong. When the Braer collided with Shetland in 1993, the oil had vanished in around a week. In 1991, Saddam Hussein was accused of creating an oil slick that would wipe out wildlife in the Persian Gulf; biologists reported that they could find no trace of the oil four months later. Even following the infamous Exxon Valdez spillage of 1989, the fish and seabird populations of Prince William Sound had returned to normal levels within four years. The sea, it seems, is not the defenceless victim which environmentalists would have us believe. The marine environment is very efficient at breaking down and dispersing oil and its effects. The publicity- and fund-seeking ecodoom merchants huff and puff about long-term destruction, then move on to the next disaster hoping we all have short memories.

2. In any case, what is an 'environmental disaster'? Birds and fish die in large numbers all the time without the assistance of oil slicks. Beyond routine processes to do with competition for food and so on, extremes of weather routinely hit bird populations hard. If killing birds and fish is an environmental disaster, then nature is the biggest culprit.

3. One emotive note struck in the coverage of oil spills involves the threat to some rare species that always seem to be discovered in the area. Yet even the extinction of species is a part of nature's cycle and is, in the long run, one of the factors which generates species diversity (see Richard Leakey's new book, The Sixth Extinction). Those who mourn the passing of a rare species of bird should recognise that they are expressing their own sense of loss, for whatever reason, and that this cannot be equated with 'ecological disaster'. By its very nature, conservation has no part in the turbulent natural scheme of things.

The horrified reactions to the latest spillage had little to do with the facts of the matter. Instead, they highlight the morbid culture of our times: an atmosphere in which every problem seems to be inflated into a disaster, every minor crisis is turned into a national drama, and the blame is always laid at the door of human intervention in nature. Meanwhile a real scandal - like the fact that lives are put at risk by the sub-standard ships and inadequately funded salvage operations that are routine features of capitalist society today - passes almost without comment.
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