Friday, May 14, 2010

How Big is a Big Bad Oil Spill?

Let's start with something we can all agree on: the oil spill in the Gulf is bad.

But how big is bad? How does this spill compare with spills in the past? And what happens if, and when, it surpasses the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez? It turns out, in the media's preoccupation with measuring this spill against the Exxon Valdez, reporters may have distorted the actual history (and frequency) of catastrophic oil spills.

To begin, we need to know how volumes of oil are measured. Unfortunately, this volume is measured in a variety of ways, and the media shows no consistency in the units they report.

First, there's a gallon. We know gallons because we fill our gas tanks in gallons. We also buy milk in gallons. A gallon of oil fits in here:



Oil is also measured in barrels. Oil was actually shipped in barrels in the 19th and early 20th centuries:



(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's American Memory digital archive.)

In reality, the actual size of oil barrels varied. In the 19th century, crude oil was poured into whatever was available, regardless of the size. Eventually, though, the standard American barrel of oil came to contain 42 gallons.

Finally, especially in international contexts, oil quantities are often reported as tonnes, or metric tons. This is actually a measure of mass: 1 tonne = 1,000 kilograms. It's just one more way to add to the confusion. How many tonnes are in a barrel varies depending on what's in the oil and where it's produced: some oils are thick and heavy, others light -- you can find many conversions for specific countries and years here. The global average is about 7.3 barrels per tonne; you can find a calculator here.

Confusingly, in coverage of the Gulf spill, reporters have been using both barrels and gallons, even while reporting for the same news organizations.

What does this mean for the Gulf spill? Initially, BP reported the leaks amounted to about 1,000 barrels per day -- that's 42,000 gallons. By April 28, government estimates pushed that figure up to roughly 5,000 barrels per day -- or, 210,000 gallons.

And to make matters worse, today, NPR reported revised estimates that put the spill at between 56,000 and 84,000 barrels (that's 2,352,000 to 3,528,000 gallons). This criticism was similarly voiced in the New York Times, which went on to note how bad things might still get:

BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that would dump a plume the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the gulf every four days. BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has estimated that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil.


For most of us, these big numbers start to lose their meaning. And here's where history comes in. The Times' reference to the Exxon Valdez is representative of many news organizations, which seek to put the size of this leak into perspective. We can't easily imagine how much oil is contained in thousands of barrels (or gallons), but we all remember the 1989 disaster of Exxon Valdez, which ultimately dumped about 270,000 barrels (11,340,000 gallons) of crude oil into the sea. The images out of Valdez have become iconic, with some 270,000 birds killed.

But was Exxon Valdez the worst oil spill in history?

Not by a long shot. Since 1967, it ranks as only the 35th worst spill. The actual worst was in 1979, when the Atlantic Empress sank off Tobago in the West Indies, spilling some 2,104,000 BARRELS into the water: that's over seven and a half Exxon Valdezes. The ABT Summer, 700 nautical miles off the coast of Angola was a close second in 1991, spilling 1,906,000 BARRELS. The list, as you can see goes on:



(Graph courtesy of the International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation's 2009 Oil Tanker Spill Information Pack -- the red is the relative size of the Exxon Valdez.)

Most Americans have never heard of The Atlantic Empress, ABT Summer, Castillo de Bellver, Amoco Cadiz, or any of the other largest spills. That's probably because they took place far from the United States, either in deep water or somewhere without much US press coverage:



The Exxon Valdez was a tragedy, but in the United States, it has so grossly overshadowed much larger and more catastrophic spills. The Exxon Valdez has become so widely known because it was so close to shore, affecting so many Americans, and producing such disturbing images of oil coated wildlife. But much more oil has spilled into the world's oceans with less outrage but no less an ecological consequence.

This won't come as much comfort, of course. The Gulf catastrophe is a leak, not a spill, and it will keep pouring oil into the water until it's plugged. The real problem is that so many spills have gone unnoticed for so long -- and until now, we've actually had a pretty good decade.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ambrose Files, Redux

Few historians have fallen farther in stature so quickly than Stephen Ambrose. The acclaimed author of Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, a lucid three volume biography of Richard Nixon, and many of other works had been caught in 2002 plagiarizing passages in at least seven of his most popular books. (You can find an account of the controversy at the History News Network here.)

I first encountered Ambrose by reading Undaunted Courage, his vivid account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while camped for a summer along the Milk River in Montana, near the explorers' original route. (In this book, it turned out Ambrose paraphrased only very loosely the prose of historian Dumas Malone.)

Tales of the episode ricocheted through the media. Quickly, though, the specific charge of plagiarism appeared to take a back seat to other, more ambiguous charges. Wendy Kaminer observed that Ambrose's success depended precisely on a kind of literary conformity in a commodified culture that gave readers the heroes they craved. And as Ron Robin notes in his history of recent episodes of academic misconduct, many historians appeared to see Ambrose's plagiarism as a product of his deeper sin of blurring the lines of scholarship and mass entertainment.

Now there are new charges.

Three weeks ago, Richard Rayner reported in the New Yorker that Ambrose's looseness with his sources reached far earlier into his career, and beyond the appropriation of others' prose and into the domain of apparent fabrications.

Ambrose's career and original fame had been built on his masterful and scholarly studies of Dwight Eisenhower. Yet as revealed by Rayner, not only was Ambrose’s oft told story of how he came to be Eisenhower’s first biographer false (he was not solicited by the former President as he claimed), but his statements that he interviewed Eisenhower for “hundreds and hundreds of hours” on a range of momentous subjects turned out to be fictions as well. Historians at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, while preparing a program on Ambrose’s works, had discovered that the retired Eisenhower's meticulously kept schedule book reveals that Ambrose met Eisenhower only three times, for a grand total of five hours.

Needless to say, these revelations only raise more questions. What kind of "deep-down resentment" could have driven such an accomplished figure to such literary crimes? wonders Garrison Keillor.

This is a fair question, but a letter published in this week's New Yorker raises what I think are more important ones, ones less about Ambrose and more about us, his readers (note: a subscription may be required).

Pete Wilson, the former California Senator and Governor, defends Ambrose against charges neither the author nor Eisenhower can speak to:

We may never know with absolute certainty the details of their interactions, for the period in question was more than forty years ago, and neither of these fine American is with us today. What we know is that Ambrose and President Eisenhower clearly had an important relationship, which included a number of meetings, substantive conversations, and a long correspondence.


Well, the evidence certainly suggests that Ambrose had an important relationship with Eisenhower; what's doubtful is whether the opposite was true.

But it's Wilson's conclusion that cuts to the heart of the issue:

And what truly matters is that Ambrose made the history of our country compelling. He illuminated the extraordinary war service and the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. He shone a bright light on the Second World War generation and gave these citizen-soldiers the opportunity to tell their stories. Ambrose’s legacy is his exceptional body of work, which will continue to engage, educate, and inspire.


Engage and inspire, most definitely. But educate is more complex. When Ambrose cites interviews that plainly didn't happen, what can we be sure we've learned? Wilson notes that he never met Eisenhower; he, like most of us, only knows him through the biographical and historical work of other scholars. If that work cannot be trusted, what have we learned? Is the purpose of historical writing -- even popular historical writing -- to elicit pride and shape a national identity? Or, to paraphrase a teacher of mine, is it to remember the things that society would prefer to forget? Can it do both?

Ambrose was never reticent about the purpose of his writing -- it was to tell a good story that brought his readers into the past. What's unclear now is how much of that past took place only in Ambrose's imagination.

For a fascinating account of the original Ambrose plagiarism controversy, along with other recent episodes of scholarly misconduct, see Ron Robin, Scandals & Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

For the origins of modern academic citation practices, see Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge: Harvard, 1997).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Founding Fundamentalists?

Once again, Sarah Palin has said something outrageous. This time, it's an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on May 6, the National Day of Prayer and the subject, predictably, is the constitutionality of this 1952 statute. To strengthen their positions (both clearly in support), Palin and O'Reilly turn to history:



What are we to make of these claims?

First, Sarah Palin:

I have said all along that America is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. And you know nobody has to believe me, though. You can just go to our Founding Fathers’ early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don’t come from man, they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our right to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.”


Next, O'Reilly:

All I have to do is walk into the Supreme Court Chamber and you’ll see the Ten Commandments. So we know that you’re absolutely correct: the Founding Fathers did base not only the Declaration of Independence but the constitutional protections on what they thought was right and wrong, and what they thought was right and wrong came from the Ten Commandments, which is Judeo-Christian philosophy. That is beyond a reasonable doubt.


But is it? As we'll see, far from it. Finally, Palin again:

I think again that it is an attempt to revisit and rewrite history. I think we should just kinda keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear, that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.


Well, not really.

The historical problems these statements raise are manifold, but let me focus on just one set.

Are Judeo-Christian beliefs "the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course?" Did the Founders, as Palin said "create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments?" And did the Founders, as O'Reilly claimed, base the Declaration of Independence on "what they thought was right and wrong ... from the Ten Commandments?"

Let's leave aside for the moment what "Judeo-Christian beliefs" mean, as this term had no meaning in the 18th century, or even the 19th. The English colonies in America were certainly founded by Christians and the Founders were indeed brought up in a Christian environment of one kind or another, so were the laws they established based on Christian ideas?

Not really. The Founders believed in God, though many of them ultimately rejected, in whole or in part, the practices of Christianity in its myriad manifestations. The religious world of mid-18th century was in flux; on the one hand, it witnessed an evangelical revival beginning in the 1730s and 1740s -- the so-called Great Awakening. On the other hand, the force of Enlightenment rationality forced many religious denominations to question their traditional beliefs and practices, and even the meaning of God itself.

The God of the most influential founders was the God of Deism. Deism had its roots in the 17th century, but never became denomination of its own, never had a formal structure, and never possessed a coherent tradition. It was a way of seeing the world that incorporated Enlightenment ideas of human rationality and rejected what were seen as corruptions of true belief, like a formal Church and its hierarchy, faith in divine intervention in the world, the divinity of Jesus, and the divine authorship of the Bible. Deists instead tried to deduce the original beliefs of Christianity. Americans arrived at Deism from a range of Christian backgrounds -- be it Congregationalist (like Ben Franklin and John Adams) or Anglican (like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe).

Deism itself embraced a range of ideas. Tom Paine and Ethan Allen explicitly rejected the Christian church. Ben Franklin saw the value of church in cultivating morality and encouraged others to go, though he rarely went himself. John Adams was a Unitarian, a member of this liberal branch of Congregationalism that thought Christianity had long ago erred in believing in a holy trinity (though it kept a special, higher-than-man status for Jesus) and rejected the strictures of Calvinism. Adams himself attended Church regularly and believed in some Biblical miracles and an afterlife. Thomas Jefferson publicly remained affiliated with the Episcopal church his entire life, and even enjoyed attending it, but despite his public self-censorship, his unorthodox views became widely known: he believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus but not in the miracles, to the point that he edited a version of the New Testament -- with a razor -- that removed the prophetic and miraculous events and left, as he titled it, The Life and Morals of Jesus.

As for George Washington, the evidence of his religiosity is far more complex -- on the one hand, he attended church when living near one (Anglican or Episcopal); on the other, close friends, relatives, and pastors recalled he did not take communion; his writings uniformly use Deistic terms for the supreme being; and accounts of his orthodoxy only emerge in hagiographic biographies written after his death (most notably, Mason Locke Weems's The Life of George Washington, originally published in 1800 -- this is an 1833 reprint).

Contrary to the claims of Sarah Palin, the God of the Deists was far from the active, intervening God of the Bible. As the historian of American religion David L. Holmes notes in his gem of book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers,

In place of this Hebrew God, Deists postulated a distant deity to whom they referred with terms such as "the First Cause," "the Creator of the Universe," "the Divine Artist," "the Divine Author of All Good," "The Grand Architect," "the God of Nature," "Nature's God," "Divine Providence," and (in a phrase used by Franklin, "the Author and Owner of our System."


Which brings us to the Declaration of Independence. As Holmes notes, the document uses the terms "Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge," and "divine Providence." But these terms need to be understood in their Deistic context: the God of which they refer is precisely not the God of the Bible (or the Ten Commandments) but a more abstract notion, the source of the universe itself, or, as many Americans learn in high school, God as divine clockmaker.

Remember too, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson, the Deist. What could he have meant by the ringing phrase,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them (emphasis added)


Here we turn to I. Bernard Cohen's brilliant investigation of the role of science in the founders' political ideas. In Science and the Founding Fathers, Cohen investigates this phrase and finds variations on it like "Nature's God" and "Nature and Nature's Laws" common expressions of the Enlightenment, where it appears, for example, in the Poetry of Alexander Pope in reference to Isaac Newton:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be, and all was light!


Nature's God and Nature's Laws were largely synonymous, reflecting the divine origins and structure of the universe and allowing that structure to become known to humans through reason. Interestingly, Cohen tracked down a popular and apocryphal story, often reprinted in the colonial press, of "Polly Baker," on trial for fornication, who defended her actions with a a reference to the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" to "Encrease and Multiply." In the account, she's not only acquitted, but her judge becomes smitten and they soon marry. It was only revealed much later that the story was a complete fabrication by the bored and mischievous printer Ben Franklin. Cohen speculates that Jefferson likely knew the story and perhaps unconsciously turned the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" into "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," making Franklin the unwitting contributing author to this passage.

Ok, so how about the Constitution? Well, the Constitution doesn't mention God at all, and in fact, in its very first and most famous line, the document declares that the authority of the Constitution derives not from the deity but from "We the People of the United States."

But maybe things were left out of the text of the Constitution that were widely assumed to be true. Let's look at the Federalist Papers. These were the essays published (anonymously) in 1787 and 1788 by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to develop public support for ratifying the Constitution. They mention God only twice, one (in number 18) in a historical reference to ancient Greece; the other (in number 43), when Madison appealed "to the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed." (Madison was writing here about the legal justification for dissolving the Confederation of 13 states and replacing it with the government outlined by the Constitution when, according to Article VII, only 3/4s of the states were required to ratify the deal.) This usage of "the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God" is clearly a reference to Jefferson's Declaration.

I could go on. The key point is that the religious lives of the founders was quite complex. The founders held a range of views on God, but in no way does the notion of "the God of the Bible" seem appropriate -- this was precisely the God that Deists rejected.

But in a sense, the religious views of the founders is besides the point. Even if they had been evangelical revivalists (they weren't) would that have made the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution documents based on a biblical morality? Hardly. The fundamental problem with O'Reilly and Palin's assumptions is that it wrenches the Declaration and Constitution from their historical contexts. The sad thing is that while for so much of history, our documentation is lacking, for the crafting of these documents we have ample evidence.

When a committee of five, chaired by Jefferson and including Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was assigned by the Second Continental Congress the task of crafting a Declaration of Independence, they didn't do so in a vacuum. They had specific, political purposes in mind: domestically, to articulate the reasons for the revolution and shore up a common, American identity (which prior to this, didn't exist) and diplomatically, to reach out to other European powers like France and Spain in a desperate bid for needed support. Politics and messaging, not biblical morality, was at the heart of the Declaration.

But quickly, a word on the phrase "Judeo-Christian." A quick scan of google book search suggests that the term was not in circulation in the 18th century. By the late 19th century, it appears largely in reference to the early Christians, who were, of course, Jews. The phrase begins to assume its modern connotation -- a common moral and cultural heritage of contemporary faiths -- in the 1930s and only really takes off during and after World War II, a period of tectonic shifts in the nature of American pluralism. In fact, we only begin to see the phrase "Judeo-Christian beliefs" in the 1940s.

I'd argue that it's no accident that "Judeo-Christian" is so frequently paired with the Ten Commandments (as Sarah Palin does in the clip above) -- together they suggest a common bond of religious expression that transcends sectarian and doctrinal divisions. All Christians and Jews -- together comprising over 80% of religious expression in the United States -- believe in the Ten Commandments, right?

For more on the religious views of the founding generation and religious life in colonial and early national America, see:

David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

On the Declaration of Independence, see

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007).

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997).