Oil Spill Blues: Prayer, Science, and Grassroots Activism

This article has been corrected.

The Houma Nation was dancing the Electric Slide.

Members of the tribe of southeastern Louisiana had come together Saturday for the inauguration ceremony of Thomas Dardar Jr., their new principal chief. By all estimates, it was the largest gathering in years. Hundreds of people filled the Grand Caillou Recreation Building in tiny Dulac, Louisiana. Women and men greeted each other like long-lost sisters and brothers, standing arm in arm as they exchanged news. In the rich cultural melange that is Louisiana, many, older people mostly, chatted warmly in French Acadian, but the formal prayer and chants were in their native Indian tongue.

The past five years have been difficult ones for the Nation, whose people have borne more than their fair share of bad times. First Katrina, then Rita, then Ivan tore apart their homes and buildings. Each time, they came back and rebuilt. But now the Deepwater Horizon oil-well disaster may tear apart their livelihoods, and with it, their way of life. This realization and a desire for a respite to their worries is what brought them all together Saturday.

So after the ceremony, they just wanted to reconnect with old friends and family, eat jambalaya, dance the Cajun waltzes and, of course, the Electric Slide.

But standing off to the side was a bearded homegrown Cajun who was there to remind them of the bad times and to urge them to do something about it. Drew Landry had borrowed gas money from his grandmother to get here. The only problem was that he wasn’t sure how to go about making his request. Landry mumbled, “I need to take a Houma Nation 101.”

Earlier this month, New Orleans musician and institution Dr. John called on people of all faiths to pause for a moment each day at 6 p.m. and say a prayer for “Grandmother Earth.” He asked Landry, a southwest Louisiana songwriter and emerging grassroots activist, to introduce his campaign to communities in the region, including Indian Nations such as the Choctaw and the Houma.

“People in southern Louisiana are people of faith,” Landry said. “Even if you don’t believe in God, it still can bring people together.”

While President Obama, in his much-debated Oval Office Address last week, seemed to be calling Americans to personal prayer, Landry’s vision is more collective, and possibly more practical. He believes the simple discipline of praying in unison will get people to pay more attention to the disaster being laid out at their doorsteps. In a tour of the Gulf region from Louisiana to Florida, he was shocked and frustrated by what he saw as a passivity in people. All along the coast, they seemed less interested in fighting and more interested in getting in one last fishing excursion or trip to the beach. Or one more chance to dance together.

He spoke with Dardar and other tribal leaders about trying to convince people to present a united community working together to develop a plan that addresses the economic, environmental, health, and justice needs of the communities. Landry handed them his business card and they agreed to talk later.

Landry is admittedly still struggling with his message, but he knows he’s fed up with seeing such helplessness in his people. “For 300 years, people have getting screwed here,” he said. “Acadians and Indians, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re poor.”

An Amazing Amount of Uncertainty

In the small communities that rise up out of the swamps, residents either earn their living from fishing or from oil. So most residents down here oppose President Obama’s moratorium on offshore gas and oil drilling. A federal judge overturned the moratorium Tuesday, but the administration has said it will appeal. With half the population struggling to stay afloat, people say that the moratorium puts the other half out of work and will devastate what’s left of the local economy.

Additionally, Landry believes it will serve as a big power grab by the biggest oil conglomerates. The smaller oil and gas drilling companies won’t be able to survive and will die out. “It’s going to turn the oil business down here into one giant Wal-Mart,” he said.

This position puts local residents in stark contrast with many environmentalists who say the temporary six-month moratorium is vital in order to prevent another blowout before the failed regulatory system can be overhauled.

“The irony of the opposition to deepwater drilling is that we in Louisiana are the most vulnerable in terms of climate change,” said Len Bahr, former director of the Governor’s Applied Coastal Science Program (and veteran of five gubernatorial administrations). “Yes, the oil industry reflects an enormous part of the economy of southeastern Louisiana. So I can understand why people feel that way. But some of the people who oppose the moratorium are the same people who object to any limitation on greenhouse emissions.”

Which puts those at the grassroots level, those who most need to work together, at cross purposes. Which is where why Landry has been reaching out to various interest groups. While Landry is a religious man, he says the purpose of the campaign is not necessarily to invoke divine intervention, but to try to get everyone on the same page.

Some fear that there is too much embracing of prayer lately, and not enough looking at scientific solutions. Bahr and other scientists are particularly concerned with various cleanup programs, which they say could end up making the Gulf worse, rather than better. Bahr’s LaCoastPost, a blog devoted to coastal reconstruction, is highly critical of what he describes as politically motivated solutions, particularly Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s coastal barrier project.

The governor is a creationist and notoriously anti-science. So it’s not surprising that he is proceeding on the $360 barrier project without the input of scientists, who say the project will do little to keep oil out of Louisiana’s marshes and could possibly make the situation worse.

And Bahr said it’s really too late to restore the Gulf to a condition better than before the spill. “I believe we are no longer in the Holocene age and have moved on to the Anthropocene age,” he said, describing the theory that humans have so altered Earth’s ecosystem—climate change being a primary example—that time since the Industrial Revolution should count as its own global epoch.

Len Bahr understands the passivity that many in southeastern Louisiana and elsewhere are experiencing. The problem in dealing with the environmental disaster, whether by prayer or science, is that nobody knows how bad it will get before it can get better. Until the Deepwater Horizon well is stopped, scientists say there is simply no way to assess the extent of the damage.

“There is an unbelievable amount of uncertainty,” Bahr said. “I’ve never seen so much uncertainty as a scientist. All these variables. It’s amazingly complicated.”

Landry said this uncertainty fosters the feeling of helplessness that he is witnessing. “That’s it,” he said. “We’re about to be kicked out again.”

Eat Oysters While You Can

Meanwhile, in Mexico Beach, Florida, at the tiny Regent’s restaurant, patrons lined up at the bar ordering Apalachicola oysters. As Great Britain played the United States in the World Cup on the television overhead, people ate quietly, reverently. Each oyster a sacrament.

Apachicola is famous for its oysters, which are sweet and briny and taste of the Gulf’s clear water and of life’s earliest beginnings. Tammy the bartender said she orders the oysters twice a week. In the past two months, each time she places an order, she holds her breath to see whether they will be able to provide. Louisiana’s oyster beds have been closed to harvesting, as well as much of Mobile Bay. “I’m waiting for the day when they say no,” she said.

So you eat oysters while you can. Before Tammy gets the news that they’re gone. Two young out-of-work geologists sat next to me. They told me that the loss of wildlife now is bad enough. But soon, the oysters will spawn. An inspired oyster feeling the love takes the initiative and begins the dam’s release. Others follow suit. The young oysters assume the role of males and release sperm. The older, more mature, oysters are the females and release eggs. Nature’s cross dressers. Soon, an entire oyster bed will be mass of sperm and eggs undulating in the waves. “One massive orgy,“ the geologist described it, staring down at one covered in a healthy dollop of horseradish. But this year with all the oil floating around, all that loving may become a death trap, he said .

Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries on Mobile Bay and fourth generation fisherman, said, “oyster resources in the Gulf are a testament to what can do with conservation measures and replacing of wise replacement of habitat.”

“We had, and still have, the largest naturally reproducing oyster beds in the world in the Gulf of Mexico.“

But while oysters can be incredibly resilient, Nelson it remains questionable just how much they can take.

The geologist at the bar, who wouldn’t give me his name, said he thinks Obama may be right about his promise last week to make the Gulf better than it was before. “Sure,” he said, “once you destroy everything, it can only get better.”


Drew Landry’s BP Blues:

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Gov. Jindal is a young earth creationist. It has been corrected to state that he is a creationist.