The Return of the Blob

In 1958, “The Blob” oozed into popular culture in Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.’s schlocky cult classic starring Steve McQueen as the dreamy all-American hero and an ever-expanding gelatinous compound in the title role. Burt Bacharach’s cheesy jazzy-mambo theme song cautioned:

Beware of The Blob, it creeps
And leaps and glides and slides
Across the floor
Right through the door
And all around the wall
A splotch, a blotch
Be careful of The Blob.

Some saw the film as an allegory of communist encroachment: the blob (which was red!) grew uncontrollably, devouring an upstanding Pennsylvania community. Then, as now, people didn’t know how to combat a blob: at first, an old man tried to destroy it by poking it with a stick.

The blob has reemerged as a frightening, incomprehensible threat, but it’s no longer a Hollywood special effect. First, in March, it came from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, casting a vast amorphous shape over Europe and the North Atlantic, disrupting air traffic for millions. Then, in April, another blob started burbling out of the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 immediately and endangering the lives and livelihoods of millions more as it seeped through the reefs, marshes, beaches, and fishing grounds.

Like the Cold War blob, our new modern-day blobs have a sharp metaphorical resonance. They portend massive upheaval to our orderly, established systems of commerce, industry, transportation, and indeed society as a whole. But this time, the menace isn’t communism. It’s ourselves, our appetite for hydrocarbons, our consumerist values, our shortsighted aversion to conservation and sustainability.

In both the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, there is much we don’t know about the physical and spatial nature of these blobs: How big are they? How big will they be tomorrow, and next week, and next month? Where will they go? How can we deal with them, in an effort to sustain our normal functions? (Unfortunately, the answer is, probably, we can’t.)

Where can we fly? Where can we fish? These are some of the more selfish questions people are asking as we confront the blobs. But the more important (and for now, unanswerable) questions concern the larger impact on the ecosystem: what communities will be afflicted by the volcano’s toxic fallout, and to what extent? What happens when the coastline is invaded by the oily blob – again, it’s red – that smothers the wetlands and kills organisms throughout the food chain? The stakes are enormous, making it all the more disturbing that our discourse at present is so, well, blobby.

Media describe both these eruptions – one natural, the other profoundly unnatural – with maps and graphics that try to convey the scope, volume, and movement of ash and oil. But in an attempt to impose a sense of control on the spread of these blobs, interpreters have resorted to ineffectually conventional cartographies.

Indeed, the problems of visually and intellectually conceptualizing these blobs are reflected in the ways that we “map” them, trying to diagram, and measure, and thus somehow delimit, the danger zones.

As Eyjafjallajokull erupted, airlines and passengers revolted angrily against early maps showing an ominous formless blob, so European aviation officials responded by overlaying, on the plume, a series of rectangular boxes to delineate no-fly zones. People were more comfortable when authorities put straight lines around the ash clouds.

In the Gulf of Mexico, most people have only a fuzzy understanding of this offshore realm’s oceanographic detail. This is dangerous, as our ignorance made it easier for drillers to cut corners and abuse oceanic resources with minimal concern about public pushback. People didn’t really appreciate what it’s like out there – how deep, how large, how intricate, how dark and cold, how relevant to other parts of the ecosystem; though, of course, now we are beginning to learn much more about all this.

News programs have shown the Gulf blob superimposed on maps of the American mainland, to indicate, for example, that a couple of weeks ago experts thought the slick was the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. One image showed the blob outline centered on Washington, D.C., and spreading out across the mid-Atlantic region.

Our cartographical and ecological literacy is, at present, still not very good at depicting and comprehending these blobs. We are especially deficient at conceptualizing them in the third and fourth dimensions, depth/height and time. In the Gulf, many different types of slicks at many levels have mostly eluded our consciousness and understanding. In the North Atlantic, too, there has been uncertainty about how high and thick the ashy blobs are, how concentrated, and how long they will persist.

Until now, two-dimensional maps have largely satisfied our desires to understand and lay claim to the world. Never mind that these maps embody profound distortion of the real size and relationship of land masses, oceans, and polar regions; never mind that geographical constructions like Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah reflect early American fantasies of geometric division and settlement that fly in the face of what the land and its ecological regions really look like.

In the old movie and in our recent crises, the blob represents existential uncertainty and fear. Our new reality demands messier representations of our ecological situation: nature – especially in the wake of our Promethean transgressions – doesn’t fit into comfortably neat boundaries.

Our mismappings of the nouveau blobs reflect an impractically retrograde desire: a fantasy that these ecological events could be charted and controlled in the same way that the military-political-industrial-imperial power structure has done for the past several centuries. They can’t. It’s as if, figuratively, we’re still responding to blobs by poking them with a stick, betraying our profound incomprehension of their real potency.