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Archive for Monday, July 12, 2010

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Disasters: Some are preventable

July 12, 2010

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Let’s talk about the BP oil disaster and its immeasurable destruction of the Gulf. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the immeasurable destruction in the Nigerian delta, destruction that has been going on continuously for 50 years. Or the 1979 138 million gallon Ixtoc oil spill in Mexico, about 35 million gallons of which still remains at the bottom of the Gulf.

We tend to blame individuals, corporations and their moral failings. There’s some truth to this. But the reason individuals and corporations have moral failings is that we don’t know how to think clearly about certain things.

We don’t understand randomness. Introduce a little randomness into a system (complicated systems always include randomness), and rare events become inevitable. Corporations could be motivated solely by love and compassion, everyone could do everything right, equipment could be in top shape, and we’d still have oil spills, nuclear accidents and stock market crashes.

Because we don’t accept the inevitability of disaster, we don’t prepare for it very well. You have to think about the clean-up long before disaster strikes. You have to have a plan for recovery. You need regulations in place before they’re needed. But it’s hard to prepare seriously for an event you don’t think is going to happen.

Just as we don’t understand randomness, we don’t understand cause and effect. If you drill in a mile of water, just what do you think will happen when the inevitable disaster strikes? If you lay pipes through acres of swamps in a country with poor infrastructure and political unrest (much of it caused by your presence), just what exactly do you expect to happen? Given the immense consequences of failure, is it really wise to do these things?

We don’t believe in the reality of people who are far away and aren’t on TV. We don’t believe in the full humanity of people who don’t look or act like us. Everywhere in the world, people in power don’t believe in the full humanity of what the BP chairman, in a moment of self-revelation, called the “small people” — the folks who actually have to live with the results of disaster. The Mexican government didn’t do much for the people of Campeche, and the Nigerian government does almost nothing for the people of the delta. We’ll see what our government manages to do for the folks living on the Gulf.

We don’t discriminate between situations in which we truly are helpless, and endemic situations that are not inevitable. We look at the situation in the Nigerian delta, or we look at various long-standing political stand-offs, and, because they’ve gone on for so long, we think they are as natural and unpreventable as a volcano exploding. They’re not.

Our planet as we know it is disappearing. It’s being replaced by something much less hospitable to many species, including us. We have to change the way we think about things, and we have to do it fast. Each and every one of us. No excuses.

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