In the year since the Deepwater Horizon sunk, killing 11 people and pumping untold millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much has been revealed about the causes and effects of this disaster: the chain of events leading up to the explosion, the response (or lack of response) from BP and the US government, the impact of sealife and coastal fisheries. In his most recent book, A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina lays out the timeline of the disaster, the factors the lead to such an egregious lapse in safety, the role that several corporate and government entities played, and the anger. Above all else, this book is about the rage one man feels about a situation that is almost impossible to comprehend.
Safina is known for sweeping accounts of the oceans and the role humans play in shaping them, channeling classic nature writers, while creating a narrative of both destruction and hope. His prose has a rhythm to it that gently pulls the reader forward, drawing them towards his inevitable conclusions. A Sea in Flames is so dramatically not Safina’s style that I found myself checking the dust jacket to confirm that this wasn’t written by a different Carl Safina. The prose is terse, punctuated by sentence fragments to emphasize a point, filled with sarcasm, outrage, and derision.
First, a moment to clarify what this book is not. This book is not the definitive account of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and I think if you approach it as such, you’ll miss out on its real depth. This book is the definitive account of Carl Safina’s involvement with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and, as the environmental writer who was probably the closest to the action, it’s an important piece of the Gulf story. Safina is relentless in his criticism, leveling shots at all the major players, digging into their histories, expressing incredulity at their actions, or lack of actions. He is particularly critical of Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s face in the Gulf Disaster, and BP’s CEO Tony Heywood, who quickly became the most hated man in America. At points the heavy-handed derision becomes distracting. The constant attempts to turn BP into various ironic acronyms was funny once but quickly becomes grating.
But rage was an important part of the Gulf Oil spill. As more tempered accounts come out and the spill fades deeper into our collective unconscious, the anger we felt towards BP and our government, the desperation felt by the families in the Gulf, the suicides, the press blackout, the lies and half-truths, will disappear. A book documenting that rage is a necessary part of that history, and Safina, in discussing his own journey through the Gulf, has done so viscerally.
The Redemption of Thad Allen
Beyond the personal narrative, two parts of this book really stand out. The first few chapters discuss the lead up to the explosions and are rich with background into the oil industry and the process of deep sea drilling. It places the rest of the book in context and does an impressive job explaining exactly what went wrong and why. Part One is a very different book than parts two or three, almost as if the emotions are building in the writer as he watches these events unfurl.
While the first section serves as a backdrop to Safina’s story, the final chapter is the magnum opus. Indeed, you could approach the entire preceding 273 pages as a prologue, setting the stage for a surreal and unexpected scene as Safina, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen sit down for a cup of coffee in a DC cafe. This moment shines as an uncompromisingly honest moment, where the anger that has seethed over the last year melt away and three people, key players in this disaster, converge for the first time. Admiral Allen, now fully retired, holds nothing back as he discusses the decisions he made, why he made them, and what he wishes he could have done. For a book that has invested a great deal of energy criticizing “The Thadmiral”, it is a remarkably human moment. It is moment that reminded me why I respected Allen so much before the spill and rekindled some of that admiration. Lubchenko, sill serving as head of NOAA, is more reserved, but equally insightful.
It’s impossible to review A Sea in Flames without mentioning the recent accusations of near-plagiarism levied against Safina. The sources are well documented in to the endnotes, but are occasionally not the original sources and it is not always clear what are Safina’s words and what are quotations. This is perhaps a formatting issue more than anything, clear footnotes in the text could have cleared up most of these complaints and the book could benefit from a thorough source checker to correct some of the secondary references. Safina is walking dangerously close to the line, but he is still on the side of honestly documenting his sources, though it could benefit from clearer citations.
A Sea in Flames is an urgent, thoughtful, chronicle of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it’s effect on the surrounding communities and ecosystems, and its effect on one man.