"The Great Invisible": The BP oil disaster and our fossil-fuel addiction

A mesmerizing documentary explores the effects of the huge BP oil spill -- and why we're so eager to forget it

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 29, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

         (Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard)
(Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard)

It isn’t just the banks that are too big to fail. As Margaret Brown’s quietly devastating documentary “The Great Invisible” makes clear, the oil companies and the resource-guzzling, planet-poisoning economy they drive are too big to fail, and our entire consumerist culture of ever-cheaper goods and 24/7 convenience is bigger still. It takes a onetime oil trader sitting on a Houston balcony with an expensive cigar and a glass of whiskey – exactly the guy you’d expect to be the villain in this movie – to speak truth to power. “Who says we have a right to one-dollar gas, two-dollar gas, three-dollar gas?” he asks the Texas night sky. “People think they have a right to cheap stuff.”

That was one of those moments where you feel like you see to the bottom of things, for a split-second. No, cheap stuff is not a human right. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong; sometimes the allure of the big-box store, with its acres of parking illuminated brighter than daylight in the Sahara, is irresistible to me as well as to you. But the privilege of buying dress shoes or a lawn chair for one-third of what my father would have paid in 1977 does not trump other people’s right to clean air, clean water and a decent living, let alone the future of our planet. If Brown’s specific subject is the aftermath of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and the ways that entire incident and all the lessons we could have learned from it have been wiped from memory, she sees clearly that the context and consequences of that failure have a global scale.

Brown is a native Alabamian whose 2008 documentary exploring the segregated Mardi Gras traditions of Mobile, “The Order of Myths,” has stuck with me as one of the most memorable nonfiction films of recent years. She knows how to talk to Southerners of diverse backgrounds, and although she never gets executives at BP or any other big oil company on the record (which is hardly surprising), she does not approach oil-industry insiders as if they were the minions of Satan. Indeed, the men she films on that Houston balcony (and at an earlier dinner party) during an industry conference are thoughtful and reflective, and their post-BP perspective is not unreasonable: Politicians may say they want to move toward alternative energy sources, because that sounds forward-looking and plays well at election time. But there’s no realistic (or even theoretical) plan for getting us there, and no public appetite for sacrifice; now and into the indefinite future, the entire global economy runs on fossil fuels.

Brown’s title can be read in a number of ways, and as you watch the film those meanings assemble in your mind, like the pieces of a philosophical jigsaw puzzle. On one hand, the “great invisible” is the estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil (about 210 million gallons) that were spilled into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank on April 20, 2010. Tony Hayward, then the CEO of BP, made repeated public promises to clean up all the oil, and there was a great show of collecting it off the surface of the Gulf and scraping it off more than 1,000 miles of beachfront across four states. But in reality, BP’s main response was to spread chemical dispersants -- highly toxic chemicals in themselves -- to spread out the oil and sink it. At least half that oil (some sources say 75 percent) is still out there, on the seafloor or drifting around in big underwater plumes, with unknown long-term effects on the Gulf’s biosphere. (Brown doesn’t even mention the dire environmental data, including mass die-offs of dolphins and sea turtles, mutations and lesions found in fish and shrimp, and the oil-dispersant mixture contaminating the food chain from zooplankton on up.)

On another level, Brown’s film is about the people affected by the BP disaster, whose suffering is no longer interesting to the news media and has been swept under the carpet along with the incident itself. She spends time with traumatized survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and with spouses and family members of the 11 men who died on the rig. She drives down the trash-strewn, trailer-park streets of Bayou La Batre, Alabama – a fishing village whose economy was nearly wiped out by the oil spill – with a church worker distributing free food to his neighbors. She visits Morgan City, Louisiana (slogan: “Right in the Middle of Everywhere”), heart of the offshore oil industry, where a group of schoolkids touring a rig are told by their cheerful guide that the notion that petroleum represents the fossilized remains of organisms is “just a theory.” He prefers an alternate hypothesis, and you get only one guess.

Most invisible of all, because we hardly ever choose to face it straightforwardly, is what Brown describes as our society’s “larger relationship to oil … Why don’t we understand our connection to this thing that we use every day, but we never see, as it travels from sometimes miles beneath the surface of the ocean into the tank of our car, and then back out into the atmosphere?” As the oil trader mentioned above observes, we have defined our standard of living by the ability to drive anywhere we want and buy any kind of product, at any hour of the day or night. That simply isn’t possible without a constant, uninterrupted and ever-increasing supply of oil – and as the guys on the Houston balcony could tell you, for all the prognostications of doom a few years ago, the American oil industry is booming.

We lived through the worst disaster in the history of the fossil-fuel business -- whose repercussions will be felt on the economy, society and ecosystem of the Gulf Coast for decades -- under a president who had been elected on vague promises of a green future. Our collective response amounted to nothing, or worse than nothing. We closed our eyes, turned the page and kept on drilling more and deeper. There are now 3,500 oil rigs in the Gulf, and something like 40,000 to 50,000 individual wells. If you look past liberal wishful thinking and right-wing caricature, Barack Obama surely qualifies as one of the most pro-oil presidents in history. Yeah, some of us went out and bought Priuses or whatever, but let’s not pretend that’s more than a microscopic drop in an infinite bucket. We have voted to do nothing, to pretend it didn’t happen, to hope for a magical wizard to wave his wand or to wait for another and still more devastating disaster that forces us to change. We don’t get to blame the Republicans or the oil companies for that.

”The Great Invisible” is now playing at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles. It opens Oct. 31 in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Nov. 7 in Dallas; Nov. 14 in Berkeley, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M.; Nov. 21 in Mobile, Ala., Nashville and Seattle; and Dec. 12 in Atlanta and Denver, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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