How much impact does cleaning off oiled birds and other volunteer efforts really have on the devastation that is the BP Gulf Oil Spill? Are we cleaning a few birds so we drive off guilt-free in our SUVs? Does volunteering wash away our responsibilities to the environment?
When the first photos of oil-soaked birds were released the New York Times stated, "The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico finally has a face." When I looked at those images I didn't think about the larger impact that volunteers may or may not have on the situation, I simply thought, "We have to clean those poor animals." My reaction made me want to delve deeper into what we really are accomplishing by heading down to the Gulf to volunteer.
I reached out to a few different organizations to see what their thoughts were on the real impact of environmental volunteering in general and the specific efforts in the Gulf. First of all many studies on volunteering state an obvious but overlooked idea: "One of the strongest predictors of future volunteering is whether someone has volunteered in the past," said Nick Ockenden, director of the Institute for Volunteering Research in England. I've read statements similar to this in the past, and from my own experiences volunteering it makes sense. You get hooked. Another exciting fact Ockenden brought up was that "The National Survey found that just over half (51%) of those respondents who volunteered and made monetary donations to the same organization said that they were more likely to give money to an organization that they were involved in through volunteering." So even if you don't believe we are making much of an impact by volunteering, those volunteers are also making a monetary contribution, which would hopefully be funneled into larger efforts. Both of these facts give some hope to the long-term impacts of volunteering.
In addition to monetary efforts James Fry, director of Earthwatch's International Volunteer Program, gave us some insight on the emotional bonds made by volunteering. "According to a recent survey conducted by Earthwatch, 45.9% became more aware of their environmental footprint and 18% resolved to take new action in their home, workplace or community to create a more sustainable environment after volunteering on an Earthwatch project," he said. These volunteers also shared their experiences with friends and family and recommended volunteering; in fact, nearly 42% of volunteers surveyed had found out about Earthwatch from a past volunteer.
One of my other concerns with the volunteer efforts in the Gulf was this feeling that once we cleaned up, or did our best to clean up the area and it's wildlife we would be absolved of our need to continue working toward a larger change in the world of off-shore drilling. But Fry gave me a different perspective. "Many of our volunteers change careers as a result of the experience and/or engage in new environmental endeavors," said Fry. "A recent example is one of our volunteers who went on an African expedition and has now become a co-founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Another who is a vet became a full-time member of one of our research projects as a result of participating as a volunteer. ... Volunteers take a host of positive environmental actions upon their return as a direct result of raising their own personal awareness of environmental sustainability issues and how they can make a difference." Fry did concede that, "The fast-paced nature of news today means that front page headlines quickly become old news even though the relative ground conditions at a disaster site are still unchanged and serious and in need of support. "
For a perspective of someone on the ground in the Gulf, I turned to David J. Ringer, the Mississippi River Initiative Communications Coordinator of the National Audubon Society. Ringer told me that Audubon's role in the Gulf is not mainly to work as a bird rehabilitation organization. You can register to volunteer here, but volunteering might not be right for everyone. "For many people, making changes in their own lives (for example, reducing energy consumption), advocating for public policy changes and donating to relief efforts may be some of the most effective ways to respond to this disaster. Donating is something people can do right away, and it doesnt consume all the fossil fuels that traveling to the Gulf Coast would do," Ringer said. If you do decide to volunteer, he stressed that it was important to work with an agency don't fly down on a whim to wash birds, because the process of washing oiled birds requires special certification and training.
Rates vary by species, but Ringer gave me hope: "Studies indicate that significant percentages of oiled birds, if treated properly and returned to safe environments, do survive and reproduce." But, he cautioned that these studies "only speaks of birds that are brought in alive and successfully rehabilitated. Its likely that many more birds will die than can be found and saved." Adding to this grim picture: the situation that the birds are being released into doesn't seem to be getting better anytime soon, even if efforts to completely stop the leak are successful.
With so much attention focused on washing a few birds, won't the public assume that all these animals need is a bath to put the ecosystem back in order? "Washing oiled birds does not absolve us of our responsibility, and it doesnt fix the damage to the ecosystem," said Ringer. "I believe that washing birds is a profoundly humanizing exercise. It confronts us with the suffering that weve inflicted on other living things, and it allows us to express compassion and mercy," he added. If only voting and donating felt so good.
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