Oil spills occur far more frequently than one might ever imagine. Why is it that they so rarely garner media scrutiny, political intervention, or environmental advocacy? And what can be done to change this situation? These are key questions posed in a new study published in the August issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology.
The researchers, Canadian sociologists Andreas Hoffbauer and Howard Ramos, honed in on the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It isn’t the extent of the environmental harms, they learned, that grabs attention. Instead, what draws public figures and media into the fray is largely other factors, such as the status of environmental advocates. Other contributing, although not found by the authors to be statistically significant, include the ease with which a disaster can be communicated in images, and the simplicity of the causes of harms. Complex environmental problems – global warming is a perfect example – typically evade scrutiny, at least until the damage is already widespread. And so, each year, dozens and sometimes hundreds of oil spills across North America fly beneath political and media radar.
Despite a growing awareness of the long-term consequences of environmental harms and global catastrophes, the public is seldom made aware of them. To help avert these disasters and to intervene effectively when they do occur, it is good to publicize their significance in simple terms, ideally through imagery. But the most important ingredients, as Hoffbauer and Ramos discovered, are the voices of high-profile advocates, because government attention and media response largely cluster in reaction to having such advocates involved.