The fact that this disaster has happened slowly and cumulatively makes it no less severe:

Along with the marine toxicologist Susan Shaw, of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, I’ve come to peer into the hidden side of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Wreathed SPILLJohnMoore:Getty in neoprene and with Vaseline coating the exposed skin around our faces, we slip into the clear water in the lee of the boat. Beneath the mats of radioactive-looking, excrement-coloured sludge are smaller gobs of congealed oil. Taking a cautious, shallow breath through my snorkel I head downwards. Twelve metres under, the specks of sludge are smaller, but they are still everywhere.

Among the specks are those of a different hue. These are wisps of drifting plankton, the eggs and larvae of fish and the microscopic plants and animals that form the base of almost all marine food webs. Any plankton-eating fish would now have trouble distinguishing food from poison, let alone the larger filter-feeders.

Onshore, small landfalls of the same sludge have started to cause panic among locals as they coat the marshes. Here, just a few feet beneath the surface, a much bigger disaster is unfolding in slow motion.

“This is terrible, just terrible,” says Dr Shaw, back on the boat. “The situation in the water column is horrible all the way down. Combined with the dispersants, the toxic effects of the oil will be far worse for sea life. It’s death in the ocean from the top to the bottom.”

I have to say I have struggled with how to blog about this. In many ways, it seems to me to be the biggest story of the year, a gaping, unstaunched wound in the planet, emitting death. And yet the prospect of going without drilling seems remote, the possibility of any political will to jump-start alternatives with the impact we need seems just as elusive, and the helplessness of government and industry to stop this nightmare is the most obvious fact (I just assume that BP is doing all it can as of now): all of it makes this story as huge as it is simply despair-inducing. 

If we cannot stop this, what else can we not stop?

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.)

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