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Teachable Moments from the Gulf Oil Spill

This blog is supposed to discuss topics related to sustainability, and more specifically, discuss the teaching and learning of sustainability-related topics.  What can we learn from the horror uncorked in the gulf?  Plenty. But the lessons are not easy.  We’ve been taught them before and chosen ignorance over action, which is an important lesson in itself.

The benefits of modern society come with certain risks, like toxins in our air, water and food; like accidents in automobiles and airplanes; and like collapsed levees, climate chaos, and massive oil spills.  Humans are wired to assess and respond to clear and present dangers to life and property, but we really struggle evaluating smaller risks that accumulate over time, like toxins, and huge risks that happen infrequently, if at all, like oil spills.  Aware of our limitations, we built powerful tools to protect us from the smaller, cumulative risks.  The Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and numerous other essential government programs conduct extensive cost-benefit analyses to regulate these risks.  The Clean Air Act is a wonderful example.  The Gulf spill should remind us to appreciate and take seriously—rather than complain about and avoid—regulations as part of modern society.

The spill also alerts us to vulnerability in our decision-making apparatus: we have not developed a strategy for evaluating the costs and benefits of huge-impact events, such as the spill, that occur so infrequently.  We knew that an oil spill of this magnitude was possible, but we understood it to be improbable.  Trusted experts predicted it was unlikely, so unlikely that the only way to explain it publicly was to say it would never happen.  In addition to not understanding  the spill’s likelihood, we did not comprehend its potential impacts. We are only now getting glimpses of what might happen: ruined beaches, dead birds, increased hurricane damage from dead marshes, collapsed fisheries, destroyed fishing economies, deep-water oil in the Gulf Stream traveling up the Atlantic coast, toxic oil dispersant in the food chain, billions of tax dollars redirected from education and security, and on and on.  The consequences of a hurricane dumping the oil on land can’t yet be imagined.

How should we handle huge-impact, low-frequency threats such as deep-water oil spills, climate chaos, and biosphere altering biotechnology or nanotechnology?  The precautionary principle is a start, it attempts to keep the genie in the bottle by requiring innovators to prove their innovations do no harm before being deployed throughout society, which contrasts with the American tendency to more rapidly deploy innovations and repair and reimburse damages after the fact.  But the precautionary principle itself is insufficient.  Managing huge-risk, low-frequency threats requires a capacity we seem to be losing.  It requires a civil society that can engage in civil discourse about possible development scenarios.  It requires serious discussion about which future we want to live in, how we are going to get there, and what risks are we willing to take along the way.  Such deliberations require frank and pragmatic discussions that tolerate uncertainty.  Shock-jock ideologue rants defending positions rather than searching for common ground may be our biggest barrier to meeting these challenges.  We need to relearn the lessons of tolerance, active listening, deliberation, and compromise.

I know that this blog is supposed to be brief, but the spill is huge, so indulge me a few more words.  I want to highlight two other lessons I hope we learn at this teachable moment.

Technological innovation is wonderful.  I hope that our ultimate resource is human ingenuity, not soil or oil.  Technology expands human potential; I look forward to the future and can’t imagine being limited by technologies of the past.  I owe my life to modern medicine and love my new computer. But technology cannot solve every problem because we cannot anticipate every situation. Life is unpredictable.  People are unpredictable.  Ecosystems are unpredictable.  Accept it.  Deep well spills, levee breaks, or some other massive failure in a technological system will happen.  The climate will change to create unknown conditions.  People will develop new values and behaviors.  We must develop and embrace a society that is constantly learning, constantly adapting.  The social institutions and technologies deployed to solve yesterday’s problems are inadequate today and antiquated tomorrow.  Adaptive management is required.  Each new policy implementation and management action provides an opportunity to experiment and learn from our mistakes.  Rather than shun failure and place blame, we need a culture, bureaucracies, and civil society that expects to fail, celebrates flip-flopping, and constantly redirects us toward the forever elusive thriving and sustainable future.

One last lesson, and a familiar one we always seem to ignore: we have seen the enemy and it is us.  Ultimately, addressing sustainability means addressing demand.  Our consumptive, energy-intensive lifestyles are the reason Deepwater Horizon was pushing the envelop for the oil industry.  Every time we go to the pump, we ask BP for more.  The tragedy in the Gulf and the horrors to follow are everyone’s responsibilities.  Accept your share.  What will you do differently?

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for GREENR.

For GREENR customers and users, links to portal pages and content related to this post:

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill 2010

Precautionary Principle

Adaptive Management

Posted on: June 7, 2010, 8:00 am Category: Opinions Tagged with: , , ,

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