I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”
Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal received high praise for his handling of the BP disaster in the Gulf in 2010. Even political foes like Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville called Jindal’s leadership in times of crisis as “competent,” “honest,” and “personable.” Jindal was a powerful image of leading by example and presence as cameras followed him around the Gulf, marshes, and bayous. The media spent days and nights on the water with a governor who declared the cleanup up was a war “to protect our way of life.”
In the summer of 2010, I published a commentary on the disaster in the Gulf titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” Along with the vast connection the waters hold to the heritage and way of life of those on the Gulf Coast, I addressed some of the disillusionment of the elected leaders in the state with the federal response:
Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”
In his 2010 book Leadership and Crisis, Jindal declared of the local initiative,
If the oil spill crisis teaches us one thing, it is that a distant, central command and control model simply didn’t work with the fast-moving and ever-changing crisis that was unfolding. Frankly, some of the best leadership and advice we got was from local leaders, like the parish presidents and fishermen. As far as I can tell, none of them has yet to win a Nobel Prize, but they know these waters. And some of the best ideas for cleanup came from locals.
Because the federal government was failing to provide the boom we needed, we came up with creative ideas – Tiger dams, Hesco Baskets, sand-drop operations, and freshwater diversions. It was local initiative that gave us one of the best techniques for cleaning up: vacuum trucks. The federal government was having workers clean up the marsh grasses with the equivelant of paper towels. We thought of the bright idea of putting a large vacuum truck, like the kind that they use to clean Port-a-Potties, on top of a National Guard pontoon boat. They were highly effective in sucking up the oil. (p. 12, 13).
Local initiative, local government, and especially church based charities and agencies are proving to be the best tools for assisting and leading in a crisis. For an overview of how Christian charities served during the 2011 tornado disasters in the South and in Joplin, Missouri, take a look at “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” in Religion & Liberty.
Last summer I wrote a commentary titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” I made the point that ultimately the kind of spiritual labor that goes on in the Gulf is invaluable. The work done by the fishermen and those working in some other industries along the Gulf is nothing short of a cultural heritage. It is the kind of work that is more than a paycheck and is a superb example of the value of work. I also highlighted the resiliency of the people who work the waters along the Gulf Coast. This from Garden & Gun magazine, taking a look back at the oil spill from one year ago:
The full impact of the spill on the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf has not been determined, but now, a year after the disaster, shrimpers are readying their fleets for another season. “Remarkably there is an optimism and resilience among the people of the Gulf Coast,” says [Jeremy] Craig. “Despite the hardships, they still have a lot of faith in their way of life. Right now, Vegas is getting his boat ready and looking forward to getting back on the water, and that is what gets him up in the morning.”
Here is a highlighted portion of my commentary from July:
Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”
Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”
BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.
Ryan T. Anderson, editor of Public Discourse, weighs in on BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico:
What we’re seeing is an animus directed toward modern technology and industry, an unmodulated suspicion of the private sector’s motives, an unexamined belief that markets have failed, all coupled with an uncritical (and nearly unthinking) faith that, in the final analysis, only government and extensive regulation will save us from ourselves and protect Mother Nature.
But the history of environmental progress tells a different story. And the lessons of this story ought not to be obscured by this tragic event. First, governmental attempts to protect the environment often have been inefficient, ineffective, and even counterproductive. Second, economic growth—and the affordable energy and market economies that allows for such growth—is largely responsible for the environmental gains we have witnessed over the past decades. And third, property rights and the market itself—not the supposedly angelic intentions and intelligence of government officials—best protect the environment.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and perhaps the best-known governmental misstep—still in full force—when it comes to environmental policy is the Endangered Species Act. Signed into law in 1973, the act was meant to protect species on the verge of extinction as “a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The law has had some good effects, but in certain respects the remedy was worse than the disease. Instead of bringing economic growth and development into harmony with concern for and conservation of endangered species, the act gave some an economic incentive to kill and destroy the habitats of the very animals it sought to protect.
“Shoot, shovel, and shut-up” best captures the attitude of some ranchers, farmers, harvesters, and other land-owners who stand to lose all access to their land should an endangered animal be discovered on it. If an endangered species is discovered on private property, governmental officials can tell the owners what they may and may not do with the land—imposing criminal sanctions if they fail to comply. This can greatly decrease the value of the land, but the government does not offer any economic recompense.
As a result, land-owners know that if they spot an endangered animal they should get rid of their problem by getting rid of the animal before the government finds out—“shoot, shovel, and shut-up.” This same logic also provides the incentive for land-owners to manage their properties in such a way (by clearing undergrowth, limiting the size of forests, etc.) so as to prevent them from providing habitat for endangered species.
Imagine how many more endangered species would be discovered and protected if there were an economic incentive to doing so. What if conservation groups paid land-owners to purchase the properties where these species were discovered? Barring that, what if the government compensated land-owners, thus implementing a policy that makes sense by providing the proper economic incentives. No one suggests getting rid of the Endangered Species Act, only reforming it to make use of market-based solutions.
Read “The Gulf Oil Spill and Eco-nomics” on Public Discourse.