GOVERNING DISASTER: The Political Life of the Environment during the BP Oil Spill



This article presents an embedded analysis of how scientists and federal officials scrambled to get a handle on the deepwater blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking the environment as a compelling ethnographic question, it shows how the oil spill and the environment are not given objects that then collide during a disaster, as is commonly assumed in “disaster studies.” Rather, crude oil and the environment are unstable fields instantiated and made politically operable in relationship to one another. The BP Oil Spill went from a sprawling mess into a manageable problem by being lodged within a refined deployment of the environment. The ocean was, in a way, transformed into a scientific laboratory within which the true size and scope of diffuse hydrocarbons could finally be mastered. Such placement not only objectified the oil spill, it also quietly defined what knowledge of the disaster and what relations to it could have credibility. The revised environment fully contained the disaster, insulating the biological reach of this oil spill from human considerations and rendering personal accounts of sickness implausible and illegible. Techniques of sequestering and inspecting the oil spill came to underwrite a new regime of disconnection between the disaster and the public.