From April into midsummer last year, Americans watched BP's oil spew from the seafloor into the Gulf of Mexico with outrage and guilt that came to feel like a chronic stomachache.
Then, on July 15, it stopped. And within a couple of weeks the bad feelings for a lot of us stopped too. There were reports that the surface oil was quickly disappearing. There was a government study that hopeful journalists misinterpreted to mean that most of the oil was gone.
But the oil wasn't gone, and it still isn't. Tar balls are washing around the gulf. Marshes are dying. Scientists say it's still too early to know the greatest share of the spill's environmental damage.
"The media left, so everyone assumed that meant the oil was gone too," said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans.
The nation flits from one spectacle to the next with ever-accelerating speed, but the processes of nature unfold at their same, deliberate pace. Quick, superficial information alienates us from the ecosystems that sustain life, and that's made it more difficult to solve environmental problems.
The rate at which environmental disasters recede in our collective rearview mirror marks how fast the culture is moving. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 stuck in our consciousness much longer than BP's spill. Alaska's disaster happened in March; in August it was still major national news when Exxon tried to back off on needed cleanup efforts — the spotlight forced the company to promise more work. Public attention on the Alaska mess kept Congress focused until historic oil spill legislation passed, a year and a half after the accident.
Going back to an even slower time, historians credit the Santa Barbara blowout and oil spill of 1969 as starting the modern environmental movement. Images of oiled animals stuck around long enough to mobilize the public and power legislation and policy for years. Results included the Clean Water Act (1972), a beefed-up Clean Air Act (1970), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) and the first Earth Day (1970).
Now, the anniversary of the BP spill comes with a feeling of "Whatever happened to…?" Legislative efforts have stalled, and they're not particularly ambitious anyway. The BP spill spawned a commission, but its recommendations to Congress have been ignored.
Viles calls the situation "this national ADD about environmental issues." The attention deficit has many causes. Scholars have documented reduced interest in environmental issues when the economy is down. Storytelling biases also play a role. The story "Oil is still there" doesn't thrill like a starlet's fresh scandal or the predicament of the Chilean miners, which in August 2010 pulled the spotlight away from underwater oil plumes and potential gulf dead zones.
Compared with 1969 and 1989, the news cycle is on fast-forward, and our information sources are fractured. "Now it is so much easier to turn the page or click the channel and not have to deal with this stuff," said Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, "because we're creating these self-reflective mirrored halls where we don't have to see anything we don't want to think about."
Our disintegrating attention span matches our disintegrating common will to act on shared problems, at least at the national level. The country has needed federal policy on energy and climate change for decades, but that seems further away than ever. And even the largest oil spill in history, shown live on TV, couldn't spawn a national discussion about our energy sources.
But we do still act at the local level, where people still share knowledge and sustained interest. The newspapers of the Gulf Coast have stayed with the oil spill story, in all its complexity. Viles' Restoration Network has brought together 46 concerned groups to guide response and prevention efforts.
On climate change, as well, action has happened locally, in communities, cities, states and public-spirited businesses. University of Colorado policy scientist Ronald D. Brunner maintains that that's how it has to work: Social change must always precede dramatic political change.
Brunner has studied how communities that are empowered to deal with environmental threats tend to make the right decisions. Examples are diverse, including preparing for floods in the Midwest and dealing with melting permafrost in the Arctic. The key is giving those who live in an ecosystem the power to care for it.
That's an idea that has worked in Alaska, where post-spill legislation set up a well-funded local advisory council that has monitored oil handling in Prince William Sound and fought for improvements — like powerful tugboats to escort tankers all the way to open ocean — that have demonstrably prevented another accident.
We can't count on the federal government to stop disasters, because we can't count on the media or ourselves to pay attention to all the risks that face us as a nation. But community by community, we can watch over our own land and water. And we can demand that the nation respect our decisions.
Charles Wohlforth is author of "The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth" (www.FateOfNature.com).