Governing Disaster: The Political Life of the Environment during the BP Oil Spill

The Brown Oil on the Shore of Grand Isle, LA. Photo by David Bond.


This article presents an embedded analysis of how scientists and federal officials scrambled to get a handle on the deepwater blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking the environment as a compelling ethnographic question, it shows how the oil spill and the environment are not given objects that then collide during a disaster, as is commonly assumed in “disaster studies.” Rather, crude oil and the environment are unstable fields instantiated and made politically operable in relationship to one another. The BP Oil Spill went from a sprawling mess into a manageable problem by being lodged within a refined deployment of the environment. The ocean was, in a way, transformed into a scientific laboratory within which the true size and scope of diffuse hydrocarbons could finally be mastered. Such placement not only objectified the oil spill, it also quietly defined what knowledge of the disaster and what relations to it could have credibility. The revised environment fully contained the disaster, insulating the biological reach of this oil spill from human considerations and rendering personal accounts of sickness implausible and illegible. Techniques of sequestering and inspecting the oil spill came to underwrite a new regime of disconnection between the disaster and the public. 

Editor's Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on disasters including Joseph Masco’s “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008),  Kim Fortun’s “Ethnography in Late Industrialism” (2012), Andrew Lakoff’s “The Generic Biothreat, Or, How We Became Unprepared” (2008), Michael Fischer’s “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology” (2008), Joseph Masco’s “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico” (2008), Celia Lowe’s “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia” (2010), Caitlin Zaloom’s “The Productive Life of Risk” (2008), Amelia Moore’s “The Aquatic Invaders: Marine Management Figuring Fishermen, Fisheries, and Lionfish in The Bahamas” (2012), Hugh Gusterson’s “Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination” (2008),  and Adriana Petryna’s “Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light” (2009).  

Additionally, the journal has published essays on environmental management in the United States, including Heather Paxon’s “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States” (2008), Christian Zlolniski’s “Water Flowing North of the Border: Export Agriculture and Water Politics in a Rural Community in Baja California” (2011), Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism within and against Neoliberal Order” (2009), and Gary Downey’s “Risk in Culture: The American Conflict Over Nuclear Power” (2009)

About the Author

David Bond is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of crude oil, the environment, and science, working at the intersection of hydrocarbon disasters and governable forms of life. Bond is currently a visiting faculty member at Bennington College.

Mike Zanghi, left, BP vice president for drilling and completion, talks with BP CEO Tony Hayward during a House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on the role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and oil spill, June 17, 2010. David Bond is visible in the background on the far left. AP Photo/Alex Brandon.

Interview with Author

Zohra Ismail Beben: What led you to BP Oil Spill as a topic for your dissertation research?

David Bond: I should note, I did not set out to conduct an ethnography of the BP Oil Spill. I was on my way to the Caribbean to begin dissertation fieldwork on “hydrocarbon frontiers,” like deepwater drilling and entrepôt refineries, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. When the disaster first began, I tried to tune it out. I wasn’t entirely successful. One entry from my notebook during the first week of the oil spill, squeezed between notes on West Indian refineries, reads: “Environment—object that only is legible under threat? The crisis maps the boundaries?” Clearly something had gotten under my skin. A few days later, a friend called and insisted that I drop everything and go to the Gulf. I scoffed, but then I went. I quickly realized that many of the questions I hoped to ask of the oil economy at a more conceptual level were being urgently asked in response to this deepwater blowout: —What is crude oil? What kinds of technology help fix crude oil as a singular thing? What forms of expertise help establish equivalences between different locales of oil extraction (and erase the exponential field of risks between them)? . I changed my plans and, with the crucial help of an NSF RAPID Response Grant, spent the next year face-to-face with what became the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

ZIB:  How did you end up studying the marine scientists involved in the response to the disaster?

DB: In the first few days of research I bounced all over the place, following packs of reporters to the day’s big events: press conferences, photo-ops, and hearings. It was a sort of hyper-caffeinated multi-sited ethnography, never staying anywhere long enough to get a solid sense of the real complexity of the disaster. (I overheard more than one television crew asking where the spectacular oil spill was.) Most press events were a sort of political theater where vested interests of one kind or another jockeyed for the headline attention the disaster brought. After a week or so, they seemed entirely predictable. I took a step back and asked, Where was the oil spill a problem that required sustained attention? It was about this time that reports of underwater plumes of crude oil started to circulate. I thought this science might be a good place to start, so I emailed a number of marine science laboratories engaged in the spill. They were all receptive to my questions and a few were even open to my visiting their labs. So that’s where I went. During the spill, I spent weekdays in university laboratories researching the oil spill (largely processing water samples from the Gulf) and weekends at Unified Command outposts, attending operational meetings, press conferences, and community outreach events. As the wellhead was being capped and in the months afterwards, I attended a number of meetings between academic scientists, government scientists, and federal officials on how all the data accumulated during the spill would be collated, formatted, and made available to interested parties. These meetings were contentious affairs and the main thrust of this paper comes from descriptions of how divergent positions eventually came to a working agreement about how to measure the BP Oil Spill. One year after the spill, I followed this emerging consensus on the nature of this deepwater blowout as it left conference rooms and became a multi-media presentation given by federal officials in impacted communities all along the Gulf Coast.

Federal Officials Explain How Damages will be Measured. Photo by David Bond.

ZIB: Can you talk more about the differences within marine science that you observed during the oil spill?

DB: One of the first things that struck me as a bit strange and in need of explanation was the very different ways that marine scientists were producing knowledge of the disaster within research universities, federal agencies, and British Petroleum. Although sharing degrees and even alma maters, although equally fluent in a specialized analytical language of the ocean and even the basic technologies of studying it, they each asked distinct questions and produced distinct knowledge of the oil spill. They each, at least initially, came to see drastically different oil spills unfolding in front of them. The easy critique, of course, is that science is always beholden to other interests and that’s that. Such a critique, I thought, might miss the most interesting aspect of how science happens during a disaster; namely, how multiple lines of inquiry are disciplined into a singular science of the disaster. Describing this process became the central thrust of my research.

ZIB: In your article, you are dealing with the changing conceptualization of the environment during the BP oil spill.  Much of the push by the experts was towards the objectification of the environment in one form or another. Can you speak a bit more about this?

DB: Early in my research within the emergency response, I could sense that this oil spill did not quite adhere to their trained expectations and I could see their straining to bring the matter of destruction back into a more familiar frame of reference. “The environment,” I realized, was at the very core this. Here, the environment was not an established domain but an urgent question. Initially, this led me to ask nearly everyone who crossed my path a rather abrupt question: How do you know what the environment consists of? This was perhaps ill advised. In a press scrum, I shouted this out to a deputy head of the Environmental Protection Agency (who did not find it worthy of a response). As Bourdieu might suggest, and I quickly learned, what is more interesting than such blunt questioning is describing the ways of thinking and practices of intervention that work to pin down the environment. The content of the environment, as I suggest in my article, takes shape through the practices of science and governance. These practices of objectification are deeply technological and, I think, deeply related to the disruptions of disaster. Broadly speaking, my research speaks to how BP Oil Spill became knowable and to what effect. To me, the environment is at the very core of this. In the disaster there was a weird flipping of chronology and logic (an insight I learned from Canguilhem). Knowledge of the environment came after, and as a direct result of, the disaster but it was used as a sort of ahistorical baseline against which the disaster could be measured. Environmental anthropology has often posited the environment as either a universal force or a local interpretation. One key argument I make is that the environment also works as a consequential enactment of normal life in scientific practice and statecraft. This dynamic, as I gesture to in the footnotes, has a much wider genealogy in the formation of a defendable environment for nation-states the world over. I unpack this in my dissertation. The defendable environment, as I understand it, is not the perfect solution to vulnerable life but rather a political genealogy of disaster. 

ZIB: What about those affected by the oil spill?  You allude to the reactions of ordinary people in the beginning of the article who are much less compelled to demarcate the boundaries so neatly. Can you speak to this difference between expert and non-expert knowledge in the case of the oil spill?

DB: There was a rather profound mismatch between the way scientists and state officials readily objectified the environment during the disaster and the way residents positioned themselves in a messy environment during the disaster. Many of the residents I met talked about the ways a damaged environment reached into their own lives, how the environment was not something “out there” but something we were all entangled in. Both versions of the environment, it should be added, were deeply empirical and concerned with matters of fact. Many sickened residents got blood work done to prove they had hydrocarbons in their blood. But, in the end, only one version of the environment was used to master the oil spill: the objectified version.

Billboard Along the Gulf Coast. Photo by David Bond.

ZIB: Disasters cannot be anticipated in any meaningful way by following the script of the previous disaster and employing, as you say, the “standard political calculus of technocratic risk,” where the push for the last disaster is to become a “new governing norm.”  If disasters not only reveal existing vulnerability but instantiate new knowledge of life, then is prediction possible or even desirable? 

DB: Well, they can and they can’t. Since the Exxon Valdez, there have been a number of tanker leaks or small surface spills. The training enacted after Exxon Valdez was very useful for enabling a more robust response to these kinds of spills. It worked. However, such success cultivated a sort of operational confidence that suggested all oil spills could be easily solved by the application of the now near-perfect infrastructure of response. What was lost in this confidence was a sharp awareness of the emerging risks in the oil industry as companies pursued new venues of extraction like the deepwater (or the tar sands or hydro-fracking) and a more serious reflection on what kinds of failures these sites of proliferating technical and chemical complexities might instigate. This taut and unsteady dynamic between knowledge of disaster and actual disasters is something that Lynn Eden and Scott Knowles have done a really great job teasing out.

ZIB: Your work posits that scientific knowledge is contingent and grapples with the mechanisms of change that underlie the production of such knowledge.  You end with the assertion of one of the scientists, that the BP Oil Spill represented an opportunity for science, not simply loss. Is this an opportunity to create a new science of normal? 

DB: I ended the article with a vignette that I thought captured my own ambiguity about science during the disaster. Science moved forward a bit, figured out how to understand a new kind of problem, and the resulting knowledge offered itself up as a sort of platform for new political and ethical investments. Yet, in this, much was pushed to the side. Mastering the oil spill quietly defined what knowledge of the disaster and what relations to it had credibility. The emerging science of the oil spill fully contained the disaster within the ocean, insulating the biological reach of this oil spill from human considerations and rendering personal accounts of sickness implausible, illegible, and a bit nutty. I was very disturbed by the flippant manner in which federal scientists cast aside stories of human suffering. When faced with stories of horrendous medical afflictions suffered during the spill, officials would reject them out of hand as the unfortunate superstitions. (Occasionally, officials would discreetly pass these residents a brochure entitled, “Mental Health and the Oil Spill.”) After the science of the spill was established, suffering or destruction was only legible to the extent it aligned with, and could be seen through, the official rubric of the disaster. Much of my interest at the time was in trying to figure out how exactly officials charged with protecting the public could so easily neglect these citizens. In this way, this article can be seen as a sort of ethnography of scientific disregard.

ZIB: After a disaster, is the science of normal the main vehicle of change? Or are there other mechanisms of change available?

DB: Disasters release all kinds of new understandings of normal. Destruction is certainly negative, but it also has a kind of rippling creativity to it. What Canguilhem says of disease also, I think, holds true for disasters. “Disease reveals normal functions to us at the precise moment when it deprives us of their existence,” Canguilhem writes. “Diseases are new ways of life.” I have written that the BP Oil Spill “instantiated a new version of normal life.” This happened in both the official measurement of the spill, as I show in the article, and also in everyday life. That is to say, the disaster provoked not only new measurements of loss, but also new sensibilities of loss; sensibilities that I find are often formative and productive of new ways of belonging to the world. For example, after the spill, a certain bumper sticker became ubiquitous in fishing communities in the Gulf: “I Fish Therefore I Am.” As fishing became an impossible vocation it became an unruly identity. The oil spill, then, produced new knowledge of the normal conditions of life and posed new questions of our responsibility to that knowledge. Who knows where some of these new understandings will go, what new kinds of politics they might instigate?

ZIB: What research project or topic do you hope to tackle next? What larger questions would you continue to pursue that have been raised by your research into hydrocarbon disasters?

DB: Well, I hope to put the final touches on my book manuscript in the spring and to start a new research project this summer. In my book manuscript, I conceptualize oil spills not as exceptional events but as a more fundamental process to the contemporary. From coal smog to acid rain to hydro-chlorinated pesticides to global climate change, oil spills are everywhere. Hydrocarbon disasters, in this historical and ethnographic reckoning, are not aberrant events in industrial modernity but part and parcel of how the conditions of life become knowable and governable in the present. My manuscript presents these problems as an unfolding history of the present that keeps remaking nearly everything the state knows about the defendable environment. This past summer I traveled to the tar sands of northern Alberta. I was blown away by what’s going on up there. Not only is the scale of destruction just totally shocking, but the state and the companies are very upfront about it. There is no beating around the bush about the impact of hydrocarbon extraction, no talk of minimal drilling footprints or a light environmental touch. The companies fully admit they are going to destroy the place. In the tar sands, disaster is the cost of energy. But then the oil companies turn and position themselves as the best analytical and technical resource to put everything back together again. In glossy ads and corporate brochures, the oil companies proudly tout their in-house environmental expertise as the premier science to restore what they themselves have destroyed. It’s an environmental twist on what Ronalto Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” And it is a frightening example of what Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch have recently drawn our attention to: the surprising speed with which harmful industries can ingest our best critiques. In this, for me, the tar sands offer a fascinating and rather disconcerting comparison to the BP Oil Spill.

Water Sample with Discrete Crude Oil. Photo by David Bond.

Additional Readings

Michel Agier, Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government, Boston: Polity, 2011.  

Javier Auyero and Débora Swistun, Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.  

Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.  

Kai Erikson, Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.  

Scott Knowles, The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America, Philidelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.  

Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.  

Adrian Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.  

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, New York: Penguin, 1939.  

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) What does the article tell you about the differences between expert and lay knowledge about disasters? Do you think one is better than the other? Is there a way to bridge the communication gap between the two types of knowlede?  

2) The author argues that environments do not simply exist out there but are created, made defendable and governable through a “science of normal” enacted as a result of the disaster. What does this article tell us about a taken-for-granted category like the environment? Can you use this analytical tool to explain or understand another disaster in U.S. history?  

3) New and emerging risks loom as the result of new technologies of extraction, such as deepwater, hydro-fracking and tar sands. Investigate one of these new technologies and talk about what you think these risks or potential disasters mean for our communities. Are there ways in which we can begin to deal with the complexities that they introduce?

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