DeepWater Horizon: From the Perspective of the Global Ocean Conference, UNESCO, Paris

The catastrophic accident at the DeepWater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico presents us with the pure consequence of actions taken and untaken. Explanations and responsibilities aside, we are faced with cruel evidence of precautions avoided, short-term economies, and conflicting responsibilities. But what is more evident is the devastating results of decisions made indifferent to the complexity and dangers inherent in exploitation of an environment as challenging as the ocean.

In Paris, some 800 ocean experts are meeting at the Fifth Global Oceans Conference at UNESCO to advance definition and implementation of ocean policy in many areas of interest: scientific research, sustainability systems, ocean and climate, biodiversity protection, governance, and an integrated ocean agenda for the future. Amidst this complicated and detailed discussion comes the news of environmental disaster at sea. The content of the conversation here is as critically relevant to that event as the difficult response in the Gulf, as the rescue and clean-up work, the deep water technology and engineering, and the impact on communities and individuals by the pollution that affects their beaches, marshes, homes, livelihoods, and futures.

The situation is fraught with pain and irony. There is the memory of Hurricane Katrina that attacked that same shore. There is the memory of the Exxon Valdez, heretofor the most destructive oil-related environmental event in our history. The remnants of both phenomena are still with us -- in the Alaskan habitat as well as the social fabric of New Orleans and alongshore.

How much damage will this incessant bleeding of oil do to the species and habitat of the area and to the communties that have made much of their living from its exploitation -- be it fishing or servicing the rigs? How long will it take for either to recover, regenerate, renew?

What may have occured in Louisiana, beyond exposing the inherent risks of drilling offshore at great depth, is the creation of a wave of  "environmental refugees" displaced from their occupations and homes by an anthropogenic event, our intrusion into an environment where it is very dangerous to go. That this might occur in the most developed nation of the world is the most terrible irony of all.

The ocean experts here have been studying these issues for decades. They have warned of indiscriminate exploitation, pursued the explanatory science, defined baselines, developed alternatives, and initiated novel protection and management structures to defend some of the most valuable marine resources worldwide. Much of what they have recommended has been implemented by local, regional, and international policy, legislation, and treaty. But much of it has not. If there is a single inhibition to this work it has been the perceived contradiction between conservation and sustainable practice and economic value and financial return. That argument has persuaded politicians for years, and so we are left with the resultant offset between our need for energy and the true cost thereof. At a time when peak oil is predicted and alternative technology is in accelerated development, the DeepWater Horizon is both reality and symbol of the transition.

What can be learned here, however, is an emerging method to calculate in advance the true cost of "progress." As economists join with scientists, we are moving from observation and study to predictable measurement and advance calculation of the true value of natural resources -- the cost of their development, of their loss, of the mitigation and adaptation required by their consequence, and of their implementation without first taking into consideration the broader and deeper financial implications for the community, immediately and downstream. If the cost of this event is X, what would be the cost if such an event had occured in the Arctic, for example, where energy companies no doubt yearn to go?

Many of the participants here live in countries well aware of the power of the sea. The small island nations, for example, have evolved vital cultures dependent on ocean living, now even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, tsunami, extreme weather, and sea level rise. They live with the immediacy of the ocean every day and make decisions at every level of society in the context of that environment. They have much to teach the rest of us who presume that wherever we may be we are disconnected from the sea.