From the Series: Ecologies of War
As ecological destruction and reconstruction cycles become normalized, so do repeated calls for “wartime responses.” This means that in addition to war-constructed ecologies (Kim 2016) and violent environments (Peluso and Watts 2001), there are now ecological wartimes. Focusing on the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its wake, I argue that ecological wartimes normalize new forms of military occupation, state-corporate alliances, and conscriptions of at-risk bodies. When government officials declared the Gulf of Mexico a “multiple use” disaster zone in need of military intervention in 2010, they discursively linked the region’s ecological and corporate territorial health. In this discursive tactic, the logics of ecosystematicity and war become inseparable.
Tracking this martial temporality calls attention to how “eco-” spaces seemingly defined as nonterritorial are still managed in overtly territorial ways—as spaces to capture, defend, and control. This warlike process is not inherently antiecological. It borrows scientific authority from concepts that have their genesis in Western imperial histories. As historians and social scientists note, nineteenth-century European theories of economy and ecology were jointly shaped by Darwinian metaphors of competition, extermination, and succession. Today, ecosystem science is continually validated and funded by monitoring flows of military and industrial toxins.
The BP spill began, like other wars, with capital-fueled explosions. In April, the Deepwater Horizon drill platform anchored fifty miles off the Louisiana coastline exploded. This happened after its drillers were ordered, despite misgivings, to rush the schedule. The rig exploded when oil was forced up and out of the well faster than usual; eleven people were killed. As the rig burned, its drilling pipeline plummeted 5,000 feet and cracked at the seafloor hub, releasing masses of oil, contained under immense pressures. In the following months, 4.9 billion barrels of oil, and nearly 3 billion barrels of untested dispersant chemicals, destroyed livelihoods, sickened thousands, and led to state-controlled research and restoration projects. These processes unfolded in multiple ways, revealing undeniable parallels with the US Civil War and Reconstruction.
As BP oil began to flow, a Coast Guard strike team immediately occupied the Gulf. The Guard’s total control of spill-impacted spaces was authorized by the1990 Oil Pollution Act. The ecological wartime that ensued was not a state of exception in the US Gulf. With its history of genocides and slavery perpetrated by White militarized occupation and secessionism that continues in new forms, the Gulf Coast is in many ways an othered coastal space. Continually disciplined by government interventions from the North, it is a target of perpetual state reform. It has also become a special sacrifice zone for human and nonhuman beings dominated by those who control the industries and cultures of oil extraction.
Through a carefully framed “partnership” with BP officials, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen established an “incident base” near a BP training site in Houma, Louisiana. Doing fieldwork in the area, I spoke with marine scientists, including one biologist who spoke of a military “invasion” and a sense of being “under martial law.” A journalist writing about the BP event notes that oil spill responses have become, globally, war-like processes. Speaking with a geologist hired by BP because he had Desert Storm spill experience, the journalist notes: “Like many people in the world of spill response, [the geologist] speaks about spills as if each were a military deployment.”
During the spill, the Obama administration’s main spokespersons were highly ranked military officials who championed more government-corporate control of the region’s “multiple uses.” During this time, President Obama issued an executive order to revise the terms of all marine spatial planning in the United States in a way that leveraged the ecosystem concept’s transterritorial capacity to relate military control, ecosystem science, and industrial extractions. The order stated that “regional plans will enable a more integrated, comprehensive, ecosystem-based, flexible, and proactive approach to planning and managing sustainable multiple uses across sectors and improve the conservation of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.” Navy secretary Ray Mabus released a follow-up plan targeting the Gulf of Mexico. The region’s ecosystemic “health,” however, is framed in exclusively economic terms, thereby occluding other harmful systemic relations of extraction and exploitation: “What happens to the ecosystem of the Gulf affects its economy and the welfare of all Gulf Coast residents. As the Gulf ecosystem is rebuilt, economic activity will rise, jobs will be created, and the region's health will improve. . . . Together, we will help make the Gulf of Mexico and the entire Gulf Coast whole again—for its citizens, and for all America.”
With this militarized conflation of the Gulf Coast ecosystem and economy came racialized and class warfare tactics for recruiting dispossessed people for life-threatening work. The immediate burden of making the Gulf whole again fell to over 40,000 temporary workers, including those officially conscripted by prisons and systemically conscripted by chronic income insecurity. A study examining the “good” health of a voluntary clean-up cadre of young, White, male residents (Sharpe et al. 2019) stands in contrast to studies reporting that dangerous first response clean-up work included prisoners, disproportionate numbers of Black residents, people experiencing houselessness and joblessness, and ongoing cleanup work done by people impacted by post–Hurricane Katrina dispossession (Ha and Cheong 2017; Osofsky et al. 2012).
By slipping into ecological wartime discourses, states militarize ecosystems and ecologize militarization. Experts use ecosystem-building concepts and logics to conflate a sense of aggressive urgency with a sense of restorative order. These are not just the tactics of war; they are tactics of endless war.
Ha, Mina, and Hae-Kwan Cheong. 2017. “Oil Spill Clean-Up: A Trade-Off between Human Health and Ecological Restoration?” Lancet Public Health 2(12): e534-e535.
Kim, Eleana. 2016. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31(2): 162–87.
Osofsky, Hari M., Kate Baxter-Kauf, Bradley Hammer, Ann Mailander, Brett Mares, Amy Pikovsky, Andrew Whitney, and Laura Wilson. 2012. “Environmental Justice and the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” NYU Environmental Law Journal 20: 99–198.
Peluso, Nancy Lee, and Michael Watts, eds. 2001. Violent Environments. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sharpe, J. Danielle, John A. Kaufman, Zachary E. Goldman, Amy Wolkin, and Matthew O. Gribble. 2019. “Determinants of Oil-Spill Cleanup Participation Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” Environmental Research 170: 472–80.