Earth Dharma: “The Conservation of Oily Matter”

Jill S. Schneiderman on the dangers of thinking that we can make our environmental mistakes just disappear.

Jill S. Schneiderman
16 September 2010

Jill S. Schneiderman on the dangers of thinking that we can make our environmental mistakes just disappear.

You can’t make nothing out of something. That’s what I’m stuck on now that BP has resumed drilling the final stretch of relief well that will allow engineers to plug ostensibly the disastrous Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

And I don’t mean just that BP along with other oil industrialists would have us believe that the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher was a fluke that won’t happen again, even as we’re poised to restart deep-water drilling for oil. Or, that the New York Times might be reporting an inappropriately rosy picture of the current situation in the Gulf.

I mean the first law of thermodynamics, often called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which states that energy may be transferred but can’t be created or destroyed.

Even if you’re no Einstein, you’ve probably encountered—perhaps on a T-shirt—Albert’s famous equation that describes the relationship between energy and matter:

E = mc2

(where E stands for energy and m for matter and c is a constant—a multiplication factor that doesn’t change). Einstein suggested that energy and matter are interchangeable. In essence the first law of thermodynamics also implies that matter, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed. That’s why Intro Physics students also know this principle as the Law of Conservation of Matter.

In case you were wondering, oil is matter. So even though I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of person, suspicion wheedled its way through my body when in August I heard that roughly three fourths of the oil unleashed from the deep-sea well had “disappeared”. The report from scientists at NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in fact stated that, “the vast majority of the oil from the BP oil spill has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed” and proclaimed proudly, “a significant amount of this is the direct result of the robust federal response efforts”. Well, bully for them.

I can understand why people who perhaps avoided a physics course might interpret “burned”, “skimmed”, and “dispersed” as “disappeared”. But here’s the truth of the first law of thermodynamics: since the earth is a closed system, the matter that was once entombed oil is now formerly fossilized fuel released into other parts of the Earth System. I can’t help but picture the escaped oil issuing forth from the Gulf of Mexico as cinematographers rendered J.K. Rowling’s hope-sucking dementors.

We see as coatings on beaches and birds the painfully obvious 26% of “residual oil”. As for the disappeared 74%, on an Eaarth ruled by the first law of thermodynamics, “burned,” “dispersed,” and “skimmed” means respectively, that the oil from the Gulf Gusher resides in the atmosphere helping to warm the planet; lurks as minute particles in seawater that challenge the capacity of fish to extract oxygen from water via gills suited to seawater of specific physical and chemical composition; and accumulates as something we could call the dregs of the disaster.

In his inspiring book, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Jack Kornfield wrote:

Contemporary society fosters our mental tendency to deny or suppress our awareness of reality. Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We expend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death, and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature. (23)

Therefore I’d like to suggest that as scientists, oil industrialists, government officials, and engaged citizens continue to debate the fallout from the BP catastrophe, we strive to stay open to the truth of the first law of thermodynamics and try to live in accordance with that reality.

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and a 2009 recipient of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.