Oil in the Bay

When a cargo ship ran into the San Francisco Bay Bridge November 7, spilling 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil into the bay, millions of Bay Area residents who love the bay ecosystem reacted with immediate horror. If you live in the Bay Area, you feel strangely connected with nature through your proximity to the remaining natural aspects of the bay — the shore, the birds living there, plants on the rocks, some fish — even while you dwell in a densely populated urban area covered in concrete. Hearing about an oil spill or industrial pollution in the bay feels personal.

In the wake of the oil spill, everyone expected some kind of dramatic Response — massive efforts to clean up the oil and save wildlife. In these situations, you figure the government is going to Do Something. But recalling government bungling of the response to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it quickly became obvious that the government was the problem, not the solution, in the wake of the oil spill.

The oil spill was on Tuesday. Government officials immediately sealed off access to beaches for miles and miles around the bay and warned citizens not to go there. On Saturday after the spill, I happened to bike down to the Berkeley Marina — figuring I wouldn’t be able to get near the water — but I decided I wanted to get as close as I could to see what an oil spill looked like. I figured I would see officials out cleaning the oil and I might see some dead or dying birds.

When I got there, there were signs posted saying that the beach was “closed” but lots of people on the beach by the bike path that goes along Interstate-80 between the Berkeley marina and Emeryville. I didn’t see any oil on the beach from the bike path and I didn’t see any cops around so I walked down to the water.

I had never seen an oil spill before. In fact, there was oil all over the beach and rocks but not a constant sheet – it was in globs between 1/2 an inch across and up to 6 inches across. I didn’t see much oil in the water itself. The oil was black and the consistency of tar. Some was on the sand and some was on the rocks.

I realized that about half of the other people on the beach were cleaning up the oil. At first I figured they were government workers or “official” volunteers but I quickly realized that they had just been drawn to the water to clean up without any official approval or organization. They had plastic bags, kitty litter scraper shovels, rubber gloves and buckets. It wasn’t one group — just a collective, un-organized, individual need to do something. I hadn’t intended to do any cleanup but I immediately realized I wanted to pitch in and so I asked someone who was already cleaning what I should do. He explained how it worked. I found some plastic bags and started picking up oil.

It turns out that when the oil globs are on the sand, you can just roll them up in the sand and put them in your bag without getting it on your hands at all. When it had gotten on the rocks, it looked almost impossible to get off — I left that to others with better technology. I picked up maybe 5 lbs. of oil globs from the sand (plus some other trash) in just a few minutes. With the number of people on that particular beach, it looked like we would get pretty much all the oil on the sand, but none of the oil on the rocks. Most of the shore in that area only has rocks — no sand.

It was really a horrible scene — seeing the beach so dirty and realizing how nasty the oil was and that the entire edge of the bay might look like that for miles — but I found the outpouring of un-organized public energy inspiring. When I biked a mile north to the Berkeley Marina, the police had sealed off the area and were telling the many would-be volunteers who had spontaneously showed up to go home and not go near the oil. I only saw one person in an orange vest doing any clean up there — this is over a vast area. There were tons of cars and trucks with supervisors and bureaucrats, plus lots of cops. That was in contrast to dozens of people actually cleaning the other beach (which wasn’t protected by the police.) I later got an email from a friend saying that 1,000 volunteers showed up to an event in Marin county where people were told to go to volunteer but the authorities were so overwhelmed that they told everyone to go home.

So the reality was that tons of regular people wanted to do something and there was clearly a lot of work to be done, but the government was doing everything it could to stand in their way.

Why did the government spend so much time and energy working to prevent people from dealing with the oil spill while the government wasn’t spending any energy actually cleaning up the spill? Because the government’s main interest is in control of the population — enforcing passivity and preventing spontaneous, independent citizen organization to deal with problems. If people are permitted to organize and solve problems themselves, they’ll realize they don’t need the government or the corporations that control the government. The government’s first job is to justify its own existence.

The government’s eventual response, many days after the initial spill and after they had prevented the public from dealing with the spill themselves, was to bring in corporate clean-up crews — Mexican-American workers, probably poorly paid, doing the same type of work I saw people doing on the beach spontaneously and independently.

The government kept emphasizing how dangerous the oil was and how regular people had to stay away from it for health reasons. Sure the oil was nasty — but how many nasty chemicals (like your average gas station which millions of people visit every day) does the government try to convince us are no big deal?

After the spill, the mainstream press was filled with expressions of outrage blaming the ship operators or its crew for the disaster. But all of this missed the real causes of the spill. Global capitalism involves massive ship traffic around the world to sustain consumerism and enrich corporate interests. Inevitably, oil spills happen with all this commerce. The oil spill — from the government/corporate point of view — is really an acceptable, ecological cost of doing business. Oil spills can’t be viewed as isolated disasters, but must be viewed as another symptom of the capitalist assault on earth to bring a few people in developed areas more acres of plastic crap, along with global warming, deforestation, etc.

Seeing people spontaneously out on the beach self-organizing the clean-up shows that people could get together on a larger scale — to address the root problems. When will we get together to build local economies so we don’t need ships crossing the oceans to bring corporate crap? When will we get together to find energy sources that aren’t toxic and oil based? When will we organize structures to replace the control and management of the government with participation, cooperation, and direct, un-mediated engagement with our lives?