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Imagining the unimaginable

June 17, 2010

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY.

Coalmines don’t leak, but there are few other ways that the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Virginia in April differs from that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico just a month later.

The tragedy is the same.  Men went to work on the day of the disaster in the usual way they set out for their well-known tasks on any day.  Then a terrible thing happened that got very quickly of their control.  A total of thirty-nine people lost their lives; 28 at Upper Big Branch, 11 in the Gulf of Mexico.  This is not a large number in comparison to other industrial accidents but all loss of life is tragic especially when it is life cut short.  It seems out of order.  Fathers will now outlive sons.  The norms reversed.  In a sense that is what a disaster is; our world turned upside down.  In that there is no difference between coalmine and an oilrig.

It is far too easy to point out that in both cases the objectives were the same – the mining of a fossil fuel to provide cheap energy for economic growth in the US. Coal and oil are almost the same chemically.  Coal is more or less pure carbon, oil has hydrogen atoms as well; hence we call oil a hydrocarbon.  Different processes in the Earth create them — coal by the transformation of ancient land plants like ferns, oil from the transformation of microscopic marine organism with unfamiliar names like dinoflagelates.  Both are actually still being formed in the Earth but the rate of transformation is very slow and our rate of use is very high and so we call them non-renewable.  It’s a comparative statement but a fair one.

The ready availability of coal in Britain made the industrial revolution possible.  The unavailability of coal in most of Africa may have made an industrial revolution in that continent impossible and doomed it to poverty.  There is nowhere in the world that has achieved progress absent cheap abundant energy.   We need cheap energy to prosper; coal and oil provide it.  The only way to get access is to mine it, either through a drill pipe or an excavation.  Both forms of mining have always been and remain very risky, and countless people have died throughout the world in mining disasters.  We need the fuels so we take the risks.  Mining is not the most dangerous profession; agriculture and fishing have higher worker death rates in the US.  We need to farm and fish so we take the risks that go with farming and fishing.

The two disasters are similar in very unsettling ways.   To many they seem to speak of our addiction to fossil fuel.  Like a drug addict they suggest we will go to any lengths and take any risk necessary to get the substance we crave.  If drugs ruin an addict’s health, no matter; if fossil fuel addiction ruins the planet, that’s no matter either.  Both of these disasters can be seen as one more example of our reckless drive for cheap energy that is rooted in a hedonistic desire for greater material wellbeing.

Just over 25 years ago the worst industrial accident of modern times occurred in the small town of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh north central India.  Vast quantities of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate were released from a chemical plant.  Generally referred to as the Bhopal Disaster the incident caused deaths estimated by official government sources to be a precise 2,259 but maybe as many as 16,000 by including deaths that occurred immediately plus those that happened subsequently from extended health effects.  Nothing was exactly being mined at Bhopal, something like the opposite was taking place.  The plant was producing fertilizers needed to catalyze the so-called Green Revolution, a revolution that turned agriculture in India around so that the country is now more than self-sufficient in food it is a net exporter.  Union Carbide, the company that owned the plant could hardly be accused of a rash drive to satiate an obscene drive for luxury living, it was helping to remove the specter of starvation from India.  Yet the criticisms are the same.  The company was accused of putting profits ahead of safety.  And maybe they did.  When poor people are the ones most likely harmed we care a lot less.  Writing in The Observer John Vidal has pointed out that oil leaks, spills and fires every year in the Nigerian Delta region dwarf the scale of the Deepwater Horizon in oil spilt and lives and livelihoods lost.  Nigeria is very far away and is none of our business while the Gulf of Mexico is very nearby and is very much our business.

Construction cranes topple while building skyscrapers, trains collide all over the world, nuclear power plants melt down, space craft explode, unsinkable ships collide with icebergs and sink.  We think of these as disasters because a lot of people die all at once or in a very spectacular way but, as everyone knows road accident fatalities far outweigh those from disasters but they happen one or a few at a time so we think of them quite differently, and never describe them as disasters.  Even though they happen all the time and we know how they happen we cant prevent them.

No one could imagine the Titanic sinking.  No one sounded a warning.  No one imaged the space shuttle exploding.  It is hard for me even to imagine being in a car accident, let alone a plane crash though every one that happens receives graphic media coverage. I am not going to apologize for BP but it is hard to imagine the unimaginable.  BP did the things that the oil industry knows how to do.  They put a blowout preventer on the well.  That’s what everyone does and blowout preventers usually work.  It is hard to imagine a blowout preventer not working.  They are using everything the industry knows how to do to stop the flow after the preventer failed.  No one has had any better ideas so far.

The oil leak in the Gulf is a new and terrible version of an old story.  We take preventive actions against small to medium sized problems because we are familiar with them and we know what to do.  In earthquake prone areas we strengthen our houses against minor events but no one tries to build to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, first because it is almost impossible and tremendously costly to do and second because these huge events are hard to imagine.  Our roads and road rules prevent a lot of accidents but cannot prevent the unimaginable tragedy of a person getting drunk and driving the wrong way on a freeway with a car full of children.  It is not astonishing that the levees failed in New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers has been rightly criticized for its lack of attention to their state of repair, but it was hard to imagine the failures that occurred.

As an industrial accident what happened in the Gulf is principally distinguished by the way continues on.  At Upper Big Branch coal gases exploded, coal miners died, the mine was shut down, and families continue to grieve.  But the coalmine disaster is over.  The Titanic sank, many drowned, some survived and then it was over.  The Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, caught fire and collapsed but the disaster of the leak continues. What happened in the Gulf is not entirely without precedent.  There is a long history of oilrig failures some of which have lead to extended leakage taking months to stop.  Magnitude 9 earthquakes have occurred.  Category 5 hurricanes actually make landfall fairly often.

I don’t know why we don’t properly prepare and many people have pondered the question without coming to a good answer.  Maybe it is that we simply cannot prepare for things that are so terrible just because of their scale.  They are just too big to prepare for.

Or maybe it is that we are a breed of risk-takers and that is a trait that has, for the most part served us well.  The exploration and settlement of new lands is risky.  Starting a new business is risky.  Every step in human progress has required taking risks.  Many people will say that these disasters happen because we don’t properly calculate the risks.  I wonder if instead it is that we do more or less know the risks and are willing to take them.  We may not be able to calculate a probability density function but to say we are unaware of the risks is wrong in my view.  We can’t imagine exactly what might happen but no one working on an oilrig could possibly think they we working in a risk free environment or that the consequences of a accident could not be catastrophic.  I don’t think it is a manic drive for profits or an addiction to oil or a callous disregard for people or pelicans.  I think that those who died on the rig were killed by the essential hubris of our industrial society.

We have to use the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon to teach us how to avoid another similar catastrophe.  We can even try to imagine another unimaginable event.  We need to be smarter and more careful. The continuing leak is a daily reminder.  We should be much less reckless.  But we cannot and should not try to engineer our hubris away.  We need it and would be the lesser without it.

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