When disaster strikes a community, sociologists have shown that people who feel personally victimized and those who empathize strongly with victims are the most likely candidates to lend a hand. But what happens when damage crashes down on an ecosystem, rather than a city? Who comes to the rescue in an environmental crisis, and how do they focus their energies?

In a new study, sociologist Justin Farrell examines voluntary responses to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, when 2.52 million gallons of crude oil flooded the Gulf of Mexico. He uses longitudinal data from the Science of Generosity Survey to trace the actions of a nationally representative panel of adults before, shortly after, and one year past the spill. Although the oil spread over an enormous region, it did not directly harm any single community. Without a face to put on the disaster, Farrell notes that volunteers were largely unable to focus their energies on any one project. Instead, he shows that the Deepwater Horizon spill produced a general spike in voluntary contributions to a wide array of seemingly unrelated environmental projects.

Farrell argues that this case explains a great deal about what motivates volunteers in an ecological crisis. His data show that voluntary effort following the Deepwater Horizon spill was led by a strong push from environmentalists, Democrats, and people who identify strongly with community values. Farrell argues that these three groups harbor an identity rooted in caring for shared resources and the environment. For these people, failure to do something after the spill would have contradicted the values most central to their identity. In many ways, the threat becomes not only an assault on the environment, but a challenge to the volunteers’ identity. By simply acting, regardless of a central cause, the volunteers can maintain their sense of self by feeling that they contributed to a solution.