Spilling the Story

Curator's Note

In Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel, The Things They Carried, we are told that "story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." We are told, in the context of the Vietnam War, that "by telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others." In short, there are consequences to be reconciled and lessons to be learned. But what these lessons are—these stories—are up for debate. On June 15, 2010, President Obama spoke from the Oval Office "about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens." Like O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War, Obama’s remarks on the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico tell a true war story—replete with battles, assaults, tragedy, recovery, and restoration. As Obama’s rhetoric would have it, oil is the enemy that we, the American people, must subdue. This is a story-truth of his address. But could we not equally submit that our human need of oil is the enemy? That it is not the oil mounting a siege per se, but human error and greed? That we are, proverbially, our own worst enemy? In the same June 15 address Obama stated "that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the [oil] industry," we must learn from the Deepwater Horizon explosion that "drilling for oil these days entails greater risk." This is another story-truth. One more oriented perhaps to the human challenge of self-mastery. Thus, just as we pin down certain truths, we make up others. "Stories," says O’Brien, "are for joining the past to the future." Stories "make things present." That’s the story-truth. 

Here’s the happening-truth: On the accompanying slides, we present data related to the BP Gulf oil spill, oil consumption in the United States, and the habitat, wildlife, and people of the Gulf of Mexico. (Slides are best viewed in full screen mode.) The facts, figures, and images represent our objective experience of the spill as Louisiana residents.  Although the event under discussion is still unfolding, data is accurate as of July 20, 2010.  Because we are tracking a live disaster, without the benefit of hindsight, and because scientists, media and the layperson lack access to both definitive data and the physical sites of affected areas, this information must be continually updated and refined.   

So what is the "truth" of the Gulf Oil Spill?

Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans and Acadiana provides assistance to families of Louisiana affected by the oil spill.   


Thank you for including the chart showing the daily US consumption of oil to let us see that even the gargantuan amount of oil that is spilling every day in the gulf isn't even half of our daily consumption. It is also useful to see how this spill compares to others (quantitatively) and how many drilling sites there are off the coast. And when you factor in the amount of precious wildlife coastal habitat (not to mention just oceanic life) that is at stake, you get the sense that the payoff isn't worth the risk. These would be useful visuals for a classroom discussion.

The information in the attached slides is extremely powerful and deserves as much attention as we've given to the evils of BP for the way it adds a bit more depth to the reasons behind the tragedy. It also is a useful reminder of the various ways we can make places meaningful--some of the stories we tell are more emotional and subjective while others are more easily quantified. I think your post continues to show the fluid, malleable nature of place itself--never static, never fixed but constantly being rearticulated in various ways.

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