Will donating money, hair, or time really help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

Advice on how to make the world better.
July 14 2010 7:26 AM

A Slippery Dilemma

Will donating money, hair, or time really help clean up the BP oil spill?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

A brown pelican coated in heavy oil wallows in the surf. Click image to expand.
A brown pelican coated in oil 

Dear My Goodness,
It seems to me I should be donating money in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The nonprofits that are cleaning animals are obvious choices, but I was thinking more about the people who are suffering economically from the disaster—fishing families, for example. But I am having trouble wading through the options. Also, should I boycott BP? Doesn't that harm our local businesses?

—Virginia in Atlanta

I have long red hair and have donated about 3 feet of it to Locks of Love in the past 10 years. I'm getting ready for a haircut and wonder if I could donate it to make booms to soak up oil.

—Katherine in Tucson

I hate the photos of the pelicans covered in oil. What can I do? I'm willing to take off from work and rescue birds.

—Tamara in Santa Monica, Calif.

Dear Virginia, Katherine, and Tamara,
My Goodness has received many letters like yours from people wishing to respond in some personal way—with money, volunteer hours, or their hair. Unfortunately there seems to be no single volunteer clearinghouse to harness these good impulses efficiently. The Coast Guard and BP have authority, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups focusing on bird and animal rescue. Unfortunately, there's no spill volunteer czar, but here are some suggestions to help sort out what is helpful and what is not.

Your local church or service organization may have a sister group in an affected Gulf city—and that's a great place to start looking for a home for your charitable dollars. Virginia, bless her, wrote back that she'd just learned her church's relief agency was working in affected communities, and she gave to it.

As to whether to boycott BP, there is an organized movement, complete with a Facebook presence. Boycotts sometimes work, but it's worth noting that the BP station on the corner is a franchise owned by a local businessperson, who will absorb the initial effect. A brilliant column by Sharon Begley explored whether it's really so great to pass by BP and give your dollars to Exxon or any other oil company. If you want to punish the whole industry, stop driving.

Altruistic gifts of hair are a great American tradition. Jo, the protagonist in Little Women, cut off her chestnut locks—"her one beauty"—to pay for her mother's trip to visit Father March in a Civil War hospital. More recently and nonfictionally, Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher donated a year's worth of hair to be made into wigs for women who'd lost their hair during cancer chemotherapy (this in memory of the grandmother who raised him).

But don't send your red hair, Katherine.

Darn, the hair donation was such an appealingly concrete idea, the gift of a very visible renewable resource. A short style and closely trimmed pets would have been symbols of solidarity with the pelicans and sea turtles. A San Francisco-based environmental group, Matter of Trust, was ready with a wide-reaching hair-collecting system.

Unfortunately BP and the Coast Guard were immune to the sentimental and literary reverberations and said no thanks. They say they have no shortage of the commercially made absorbent booms. When Matter of Trust finds more warehouse space, they will be looking for hair for future spills. It looks as though it works well at separating oil from water.

The impulse to rescue a bird is similarly admirable, but Audubon's media director, Delta Willis, said "everybody thinks they can go down and grab a pelican, and that's just not the case." Cleaning birds is difficult work, requiring experience to avoid injuring yourself or the wild creatures. The people you see in news photos cleaning birds are likely to be veterinarians, vet techs, and licensed wildlife rehabilitators.

The sad fact is that there aren't hundreds of thousands of water birds waiting for their dose of Dawn. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing its best to count birds collected, dead and alive; according to them, the totals since the spill are in the thousands, not hundreds of thousands. No one knows how many have died on the water and sunk uncounted. "There are more volunteers than there are roles to be filled," said Melanie Driscoll, Audubon's director of bird conservation in Louisiana. Since early in the spill, Audubon has had volunteers making nets to corral affected birds, chopping up smelly fish to feed them, and patrolling beaches to call in reports of dead or ailing birds. Audubon volunteer teams help Fish and Wildlife by working dockside shifts to coordinate transport of oiled and injured birds. Birders have been recruited to identify the most fragile coastal areas to protect habitat and nesting areas.

Tamara, note that the Audubon Society and the bird cleanup professionals say they could definitely use volunteers willing to do more mundane chores like answering phones. "But it's not helpful to have people just show up," Driscoll said, "The habitats are stressed. The communities are stressed. Get on the rolls and wait to be called."

The environmental groups are of course grateful for the sudden rush of generosity. After the headlines fade, Audubon and others will continue their long-term work on the health of the Gulf. The best thing you can do for a brown pelican is to preserve the habitat that supports it.

Human beings have an altruistic impulse in response to disasters. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb blast, people lined up at blood centers in far-away U.S. cities to give to victims. The afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of New Yorkers waited hours to donate blood that was never used. (There were many dead, and, sadly, not so many injured and in need of blood.) Blood bank managers pleaded with donors to come back in a year, to come back every year. In the same way, the environmental groups would like you to sign on for the long haul.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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