Watching the BP Oil Spew slowly unfold, I started to wonder about our relationship to food and oil (“earl” if you tawk rite) here in south Louisiana. Food activists have observed that Americans are increasingly detached from the sources of their food. The people who produce seafood, meat and vegetables are invisible in the supermarket and the packaged products show no trace of work or human hands. Of course, this is largely true here too.
Except for seafood. As I mentioned in my last note, our seafood is usually from around here, fresh, affordable and recognizable. People in south Louisiana often fish for themselves or, if they don’t, they get fish from neighbors and friends who do. And it is damn good. Sometimes we buy our shrimp at the grocery store, but we also get it from the shrimper directly, parked on the side of the road, with an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck. Or at the shrimp lot in Westwego, a town on the West Bank of the Mississippi, in the suburbs of New Orleans where shrimpers gather with their trucks. This is also true of crabs and other fish. We know the people who catch our seafood personally. When my students read Paul Durrenberger’s excellent book “Gulf Coast Soundings,” about shrimpers, they add their own insights, because many of them have family in the business.
I thought about this as I was driving to work this morning. I thought that maybe this was why we felt violated by the oil industry and its apparent disregard for safety and the environment. Or why we are angry at the government for giving up on regulating industries.
But then I thought something else. For most Americans, oil is also a mysterious product that appears, out of nowhere, in the form of gasoline, conveniently available for their cars. It comes from foreigners. Which is true, but not the whole truth. Oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico. It is explored and extracted by people…who are our neighbors and friends. We all know people who work offshore, on the rigs like the one that exploded, as well as geologists, engineers and others who work in the industry. Full disclosure: a couple years ago, my wife worked briefly as a computer consultant at Shell, which maintains a very large presence in New Orleans. Shell sponsors our famous Jazz and Heritage Festival (“presented by Shell”). The oil industry employs thousands of people here, probably just as many as the seafood industry. Some people work in both industries. It is one of the main sources of tax revenue for the state of Louisiana, a fact that makes those of us working in public higher education depressingly dependent on the price of oil for our budgets.
One of the more amazing festivals in Louisiana is the annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, in Morgan City. This appetizingly named event has been going on for the last 75 years and, as the web site states, “The festival also emphasizes the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the ‘Cajun Coast.'”
An observation that ought to make you think about some of the oppositions we have been using to frame this spill.
The oil industry is clearly responsible for a great deal of the environmental destruction we face along the Gulf Coast. At a distance, it may seem simple to criticize this giant industry for its destruction of our otherwise wonderful way of life…except that we are them. We don’t just buy their products. We work at making them. Even those of us who don’t work in the oil industry directly are dependent on their revenues. We have chosen to build our economy around the kind of industry that can and has destroyed our environment and culture. We have given the industry an enormous amount of support. Maybe we have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods by our (suddenly very pro-environment) leaders. But we should not forget that we picked these people to lead us. Their way is not the only way, a fact that we have not yet learned here in Louisiana.
Oil and shrimp. Louisiana—and the whole Gulf Coast—needs to look in the mirror. This disaster is personal in a lot of ways that may make us uncomfortable. Getting BP to pay for this is a great idea. But untangling oil and seafood in our economy and in our culture will be a far greater challenge. And the subject of another blog posting.
Posted by David Beriss