Slow Violence & Oil Spills

One theme slow violence continues to highlight is the interconnectedness between humanity and nature. In terms of oil spills, the impact on native terrestrial and marine ecosystems can transcend the initial impact zone of the spill. After the first wave of acute mortalities, resulting from the initial exposure of the spill, there is a second phase of delayed mortalities and consequences that are impossible to predict (Rice). Part of this comes from chronic exposure to oil, which can occur across spans of time. This chronic exposure can decrease the reproductive fitness of the impacted species, which can result in an overall population decline over generations (Henkel). It is important to keep in mind these elements of slow violence in relation to oil spills because, as long as oil is present in the ecosystem, there will be constant, long lasting damages to organisms and habitats.

A bird covered in oil after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Source: By Through the Aquarium Glass [Public Domain].

Specifically, in terms of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, migratory birds were particularly susceptible to oil contamination. The initial stage of mortality for migratory birds resulted from hypothermia and toxicological effects. Hypothermia usually occurred after the bird’s feathers had come into contact with the oil because the oil eroded their water-proofing and insulating capabilities. Ingested oil, as well, led to short term and long term damage because the bird’s overall fitness was lowered (Henkel). After the initial mortality from exposure, there was unpredictable impact on their local habitat which, in turn, indirectly effect distant ecosystems. Since the oil spill negatively impacted the overall fitness of all ecosystems, there was a reduction in abundance of the birds preferred food. This triggered them to migrate to lower-quality habitats, which contributes to the continuous cycle of lowered fitness and the slow violence trend of population decline (Henkel).

One element that continues to emerge after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is how ecosystems outside the local sacrifice zone can be impacted. One observation is that animals who did not have direct contact with the spill were directly impact by it after consuming contaminated prey. This indirect relationship is beginning to impact sensitive food chains in the Arctic and prairie grasslands (Henkel 2012). This is a concerning aspect because any changes in these sensitive communities could quickly cascade through the trophic levels and devastate other specie’s. This is an important element of slow violence because it forces us to recognize how distant, negative human activity can directly and indirectly shape ecosystems.

At a more localized level, the saltwater marshes of the coast of Louisiana are also threatened by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Interestingly, human induced effects, such a dredging, accelerated the coastal erosion of the marshes (Silliman). This, again, reiterates humanities responsibilities for the harmful effects on nature after man-made disasters. Outside the ecological level, the marshes generate more than 10 billion dollars per year through fisheries and tourism (Silliman). With this decline in land mass, there is a predicted correlated economic decline and an increase in the vulnerability to the mainland of Louisiana. This is largely due to the fact that the marshes serve as a buffer zone between hurricanes and the mainland (Silliman). This ties into slow violence because there can be long lasting economic and environmental impacts stemming from a singular event. It is impossible to predict the marshes resiliency, but it is important to remember that for each change an ecosystem unexpectedly experiences there can be multiple chain reactions.


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’s Impact on Ecosystems





Henkel, J., et al. “Large-Scale Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Can Local Disturbance Affect Distant Ecosystems through Migratory Shorebirds?” BioScience, vol. 62, no. 7, 2012, p. 676.

Rice, Stanley D. “Persistence, Toxicity, and Long-Term Environmental Impact of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,University of St. Thomas Law Journal vol. 7, no. 1 (Fall 2009): p. 55-67.

Sillima,B., et al. “Degradation and Resilience in Louisiana Salt Marshes after the BP-Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 109, no. 28, 2012, p. 11234.