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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Deepwater Failure
distributed 6/4/10 - ©2010

There have been any number of failures related to the flood of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon fiasco. Each of those failures is lamentable, and each fuels the anger that many of us feel with this continuing crisis. Over the last week, though, I've come to the conclusion that the most important of the failures is of our worldview.

A partial list of the failures includes:

  • the inadequate and faulty hardware of the blowout preventer on the well
  • the procedures for evaluating conditions and making decisions on the oil rig that preceded the catastrophic explosion
  • the lack of planning and risk assessment by BP, so that the well was drilled without secondary safety equipment, and without adequate plans for dealing with an extreme situation. (A strikingly similar blowout in the Gulf in 1979 should have provided lessons about what can happen, and the need for better responses.)
  • the poor regulation and oversight of offshore drilling by the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior
  • and, ultimately, the failure of our society, nationally and globally, to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. The drilling takes place because there is a market for the oil.

Behind all of those, the runaway oil well forces us to confront the belief system -- pervasive in US culture -- which assumes that we can fix any problem. Risks are denied and dangerous situations are allowed to develop because of the supreme confidence that we place in technology and human ingenuity. We know that "accidents happen", but that's OK because we'll just clean up the mess.

On a societal scale, we live out the saying, "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." We live from a belief that there are no problems that can't eventually be fixed. As a result, risks are not taken seriously.

A close friend of mine -- a geologist who has worked in the petroleum industry -- told me of multiple conversations that he has had recently with people who are furious because BP, or the government, has not fixed the oil spill. They can't comprehend a situation where smart people and good equipment can't move quickly to make it all better.

But as Ted said to me, it is not that the engineers at BP are especially inept in trying to cap or plug the well. It is not that the US government, or some whiz-bang team of scientists, could do something different or better. Short of the relief wells that will take months to drill, this can't be stopped. (The containment cap put on yesterday is not expected to seal the well completely. Yes, it will be wonderful if the majority of the oil can be captured. As Coast Guard spokesperson Tony Russell said, though, "Even if successful, this is only a temporary and partial fix".)

By the time the two relief wells provide their promised relief -- in August, or beyond -- enormous damage will have been done. Fragile wetlands will have been corrupted, deep ocean ecosystems will have been disrupted, coastal communities and businesses will have been devastated. Even when the oil stops flowing, the ecological and economic damage will continue for many, many years.

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward promised this week the company would clean up every drop of oil, and "restore the shoreline to its original state." That's the voice of the "we can fix anything" worldview. But bayous that are choked by oil die, and can not be restored. The complex ecosystems of wetlands that are smothered in oil can not be swept clean. Those already-stressed wetlands and barrier islands may simply disappear if their vegetation is killed.

Eventually, the spill will be halted, but the problem cannot be fixed. It is painful to say that, but unless we make that confession, we will continue to believe the lies of our "we can fix anything" worldview.

This is a profound moment for new awareness and change because it is not an abstract or gradual situation. We watch live video feeds of oil and gas boiling into the deep ocean. A remarkable piece of computer mapping can help us visualize the scale of the spill spreading across the surface of the Gulf. (Fill in your city or zip code in the location box.) We are witnesses to a dramatic and rapidly emerging example of our failed belief system. It certainly isn't the first time our "we can fix it" approach has failed, but this situation is more vivid and more public and more visceral than most.

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This failed worldview is evident in many aspects of our culture. The historic US approach to the creation and use of chemical compounds is rooted in the "we can fix it" mindset. This spring's report from the President's Cancer Panel puts it clearly:

The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated. Moreover, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.

Another un-fixable problem has been created when genetically modified organisms are released into the natural world, where we have absolutely no ability to call them back. Crops designed to be herbicide resistant are leading to "super weeds" that resist control. That's the latest extension of the problem created when foreign plants and animals are released into new areas where they become invasive. We can't make kudzu go away from the southeastern US, or tamarisk from the southwest, or zebra mussels as they spread from the Great Lakes, or rabbits from Australia. The spread of invasive species and genetically modified organisms is something that can't be stopped or fixed.

And most frightening of all, climate change is now something that can't be fixed. We can slow it, minimize it, work at adaptations -- and we must do everything possible in those directions -- but we cannot stop it. It is a problem that can't be fixed.

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Does an acknowledgement of our failed worldview only lead us to despair and paralysis? Does this mean that humans must cringe in fear of any action or any impacts? I hope not, because we must act dramatically in moving toward a more just and sustainable way of live. We must act to deal with climate change and other great crises.

What it does mean is that we, in the US, should pay more attention to "the precautionary principle". (I single out the US because that precautionary approach is more deeply rooted among our European neighbors.) Instead of presuming that we can fix any problem that might crop up, we can do much more to reduce and avoid potential risks.

A rapid transition to renewable energy sources -- solar, wind, tidal, geothermal -- steers us away from fossil fuels and addresses climate impacts. Tighter controls and more testing of chemicals and genetic technology may slow some "progress" but avoid permanent impacts on the environment. A trend toward more localized food, water and other resources will make us more aware of our impacts and risks, and more likely to be cautious in our actions.

Oil in the Gulf, odd chemicals in our bodies, foreign species invading habitats, and global heating are all expressions of an unrealistic worldview. We have discounted risks and acted recklessly in the belief that we can go back and fix any problem. That worldview has failed us. It is time for a change.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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