A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On the Gulf "Oil Spill" - Cultural Assumptions and Technological Hubris

Well, another ecological disaster has occurred, and it seems clear that this one is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Rather than focus on the obvious tragedy (and it is a tragedy, of biblical proportions) I'd like to focus on the question of just how it was that anyone could have thought that drilling for oil a mile under the sea, in the midst of America's richest fishing beds, and less than 50 miles from a sensitive and invaluable coastal ecology could have ever been a good idea.

The motive here, as usual, was profit, driven by America's apparently unquenchable desire for more more mobility, more power, and more motorized stuff. In short, as I outlined in the first two chapters of my book (see previous postings), this new round of ecological abuse and mismanagement was brought about by the general avarice and technophilia of our current civilization. This simply has to be acknowledged, even in the midst of our rage at British Petroleum's fecklessness. After all, even wicked, stupid, or thoughtless people (even oil executives) do not risk destroying the environment for no reason. The reason exists, and we (most of us at least) are doing our own part to create the demand that provides oil executives with a motive, in the form of ever more massive profits, for reckless behavior.

As I suggested toward the end of chapter one of Balaam's Ass: Orthodoxy and Eco-Justice, however, there are also some deep cultural assumptions at work in making such disasters more likely, and and in rationalizing the behavior which, far too frequently, leads to such disasters. The first of these, I suggested, was the underlying assumption that we cannot do any really titanic damage to the eco-systems that sustain us all. And the second, supporting the first, is the assumption that there will always be a technological solution ready to hand if things go wrong...leading to the corollary assumption that one need not not be hampered in one's decision making process by a concern for worst-case scenarios.

According to recent news reports, BP’s plan, filed with the US government’s Minerals Management Service for the Deepwater Horizon well, which was dated February 2009, said repeatedly it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities”. Furthermore, while British Petroleum admitted that a spill would “cause impacts” to "beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas", it argued that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected” (see more at: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx/1716969?UserKey=#ixzz0mzfkyY5D).

The first of these statements is, I suggest, a narrowly specified restatement of assumption #1 above, and the second, a general restatement of assumption #2. Nothing bad will happen, of course...but if it does, we will have "response capabilities" capable of dealing with it. Of course, as time and circumstance have now shown, neither of these assumptions were actually true. Bad things, horrifically bad things, can and do happen when we are dealing with matters that are (in this case literally) out of our depth, when we apply our technological wizardry to radically new circumstances in which we lack an accumulation of carefully aquired wisdom. Furthermore, technological fixes are not always available, and are certainly not always available soon enough to do us any good. These assumptions to the contrary are an expression of hubris...and hubris is generally thought to be subject to divine sanction, whatever one's religious tradition.

Like everyone else, I dearly hope than human ingenuity may, even now, pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and save us from the worst consequences of British Petroleum's hubris. Because if it doesn't, a lot of people, animals, and plants are also going to pay dearly for BP's hubris. After 911, Americans took to using the the phrase "never forget." I hope that it gets applied in this case too, and that oil executives and politicians sit up and take notice. I, for one, am not going to forget which politicians have urged us to renew off-shore drilling. Nor am I going to forget the name of the company whose short-sighted desire for increased profit unleashed this horror upon the Gulf. May the memory of this disaster be to British Petroleum's everlasting shame, and, with any justice, contribute to its ultimate bankruptcy as well, since long experience suggests that the bottom line just about all that is likely to affect an international corporation like BP.

At the very least, perhaps at least we'll get to stop hearing any more of their silly eco-friendly advertising twaddle about "BP" standing for "beyond petroleum."

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