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The Uncertain Economic Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill

July 11th, 2010

Economies, communities, lives, all shattered by the Gulf oil spill. But how? And how are we responding? What are we building?

Nobody doubts the impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on the people, wildlife and wetlands of the Gulf. Devastating. Life-shattering to thousands of people right now, for years, and for some, forever.

That we know. But we’re a little uncertain of exactly how much, for how long. Estimates of the economic impact of the oil spill vary widely. Imagine the complications: we don’t know exactly when the spigot is going to be turned off. We don’t know how (if? when?) the spill can be cleaned up. We don’t know how the industries directly impacted will fare, and we don’t know how the effects will trickle down through the rest of the economic and societal ecosystem. We don’t know if people will buy less seafood, or change which beaches they visit, or change what industries they monitor and care about. We don’t even know if the laws and rules will stay the same.

What’s happened so far? Unemployment? No impact, not even in the coastal Louisiana parishes, according to government figures.

Lost income? The national media reports that BP’s compensation checks have largely offset lost wages and income. But the distribution has been highly uneven, and the numbers are skewed since many of the the impacted are unable to file a claim and verify a significant portion of their past income in the cash-based, relationship, off-the-books form of economic exchange common in this industry and region.

Lost business? Look for a wave of profit warnings and claims of “gulf oil spill impact” from private and public companies in the next wave of quarterly earnings reports. Look for the trickle down effect that happens when money is redistributed through the economy. GNO is collecting key economic information about the oil spill and recently released an initial economic impact assessment of the deepwater drilling moratorium (PDF), but it’s early days in estimating the full impact.

But beyond that, here’s the thing:

“You don’t hear one fisherman complain about BP around here, not one,” [Mike Berthelot] said.

“They’re making better money for BP,” Berthelot added. “But it ain’t the same. This is the end of our way of making a living. BP will pay people for a year or two, and then they’ll go away. Then what?”

Exactly. Then what?

Katrina dislodged New Orleans’s entire societal and economic system, fracturing the delicate system of relationships that made New Orleans the city it was. Some is still here, some is lost, forever. What’s left? A laboratory. New Orleans (and perhaps to a greater extent, Detroit) represents a laboratory for urban change, for testing educational reform, medicine, community organization, urban planning, disaster response, to start. Take any big issue impacting how cities and societies are organized, built and shaped, and New Orleans is a test bed for change, big or small. Some might say New Orleans is too unique for the tests and learnings to applied to other urban areas, but I disagree: New Orleans is too much of a part of America to forget, neglect, or ignore.

So, how are we responding to the oil spill? We’re all responding in the ways we know. We’re exploring and telling the stories of the impacted. We’re creating platforms to stay current and up to date. We’re creating and organizing conferences, concerts (Gulf Aid, Gulf Coast Benefits, to start) and meetups to keep people engaged, aware, and give people easy ways to give back. We’re creating contests to solicit and fund great ideas to aid the impacted communities (of note, Pepsi Refresh Project: Do Good for The Gulf). We’re holding raffles, creating exhibitions, donating our time and money to people and organizations leading the charge. We’re using and creating
93_new_technologies_being_used_to_stop_and_track_the_oil_spill_and_what_you_can_do_to_help”>tech tools emerge to track and help organize responses to the oil spill
. Just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s next? My hope: less talk about how many thousands of gallons of oil are pouring into the Gulf (not because we’ve stopped talking, but because the spigot’s turned off). More platforms for people to get involved. More economic analysis around the direct and indirect impacts of the oil spill. More tools and applications to bring government data and interactions to the individual. And more tools to get people aware, involved and interested in shining the light of public inquiry into the decisions of businesses and our governments before disasters, not after. Conscious capitalism, and societal change.

That’s my hope. What’s yours?


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