Do We Really Care About the Oil Spill?

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Despite the surplus of coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there seems to be an emotional deficit in the public response to the catastrophe.
 
Across America, hearts broke and nostrils burned when a quarter-million Haitians died in an earthquake this past January. More recently, millions were terrified when the stock market dived nearly 1,000 points in an afternoon. Now, 11 men died on the Gulf oil rig. It's unclear how much oil will make landfall, but when it does, the fishing and tourism industries will suffer, thousands will lose their jobs, and thousands of square miles will lose an as-yet unknown degree of plant and animal life survives. But in this case, the public's emotions seem undersized compared with the magnitude of this disaster.

Why?

First, there aren't compelling images, especially not of people in grief or desperation -- just colorful slicks of oil in the water. Unlike the Exxon Valdez spill, there aren't yet shocking images of animals bearing the weight of crude oil. Even when the images come, they'll be unlikely to affect us in the way the photos from 1989 did at the time, if only for the fact that the latter have become so iconic over the past 20 years.

Second, there hasn't been a broad hit to our personal finances. Gas prices haven't dramatically soared and they're not expected to going forward. Absent a financial bite from the spill (aside from seafood), we're unlikely to think about the spill in the Gulf while we're away from the news. That certainly wasn't the case after Hurricane Katrina shut down oil infrastructure and sent gas prices shooting up in 2005.
 
No wonder Washington isn't pushing a bill on energy policy. "In the past, major disasters shifted the terms of debate," Joshua Green wrote about the political paralysis following the spill. "This time, nobody is budging." Yes, this is a major disaster, but it hasn't grabbed the public's heartstrings or pocketbook. If we aren't moved, our politicians won't be either.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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