Just over a month ago, the ocean burned. The images of BP Deepwater Horizon in flames have led us to question both ocean industrialization and the anemic state of conservation. Not long ago, however, Americans were swept up in a wave of environmentalism spurred in part by two very different events.
First, in 1956, Jacques Cousteau released his film, The Silent World, upon an unsuspecting and soon awestruck public. Though hard to fathom now, few humans had ever glimpsed the beauty, grace and mystery just a few feet below the ocean's surface. The second, in 1969, came when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. The image of a polluted river in flames was seared into the national consciousness. The United States would go on to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other important protections.
The ocean has inspired millions, but our understanding of it is as shallow and shrouded as ever. Only the most intrepid divers descend below 150 feet or so. By 330 feet, sunlight fades. From there down, past the gushing BP well at 5,000 feet, the ocean is cast in darkness, but life exists to the very bottom.
A month of anguish
Many people think the ocean is unknowable -- out-of-sight is out-of-mind. Communicating against such complacency is the greatest challenge of ocean conservation. As BP Deepwater Horizon shows, in images as grotesque as Cousteau's were gorgeous, we cannot let the ocean's mystery lull us into inaction.
Oil has been jetting into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month now. One month of fear for coastal communities. One month of anguish for a nation. The quantity of oil will be left to the scientists and lawyers, but if new estimates are right, it could be as much as an Exxon Valdez every four days.
Unlike the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, however, the oil from BP Deepwater is coursing into mile-deep, near-freezing waters that may be changing the spill's character. Only recently did scientists discover a 10-mile plume below the surface. Such plumes could soak up oxygen needed for sea life to survive and deal a crippling blow to fisheries, wildlife and the economy.
Oceans sustain us
The presence of submerged oil might explain why what we see falls short of expectations of what an oil disaster looks like. Then again, much of what lies beneath the ocean's surface defies expectation. In those unseen depths is the source that sustains us with the food, oxygen and the climate we need to survive.
Now, more than ever, we need a new awakening of ocean environmentalism in America. We cannot let out-of-sight, out-of-mind shape public consciousness. We must stop polluting. We must stop exploiting. We must understand that, while the Gulf is under direct assault, the ocean's broader demise threatens every one of us.
Just over a month ago, the ocean burned. Will these images inspire a new generation of ocean activism? Or will America stand silent as the silent world crumbles?
How we answer these burning questions could be key to the very future of life on planet Earth.
Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, advocates for the ocean since 1972, (www.oceanconservancy.org).
Cross posted from USA Today.