Friday, June 4, 2010

Why I'm not even mad at BP

The most absurd spectacle of the oil spill is the gusher of accusations over “who’s to blame.” Liberals accuse BP of recklessly ignoring safety measures that could have prevented the disaster. Conservatives are somehow blaming President Obama for “not doing enough” (although it’s beyond me how someone who subscribes to “small government” can in good faith accuse the president of not regulating oil companies enough).

But you know who’s really to blame? No one.

Accidents happen. We act in a world of incomplete information. Not every risk is foreseeable, those we foresee are not always preventable, and those we fail to prevent are not always solvable, even with the best brains and expertise working on them. Could BP have done more to prevent the disaster? Maybe. Could they do more to stop it now? Doubtful. In hindsight it’s easy to point out all the flaws BP “should” have spotted and prevented, but in practice it’s simply impossible to predict every possible risk in advance. That’s just the way life works.

This is especially true when pioneering into the unknown. BP’s deepwater platform was literally testing uncharted waters, drilling oil at depths rarely done before, using cutting edge technologies invented for that purpose. Many of the solutions BP has tried have never been attempted before, so there has been no way to tell in advance whether they’d work. To say the disaster is BP’s or President Obama’s “fault” is a little like blaming Lewis and Clark’s “recklessness” for the deaths in the wilderness of fellow explorers, or blaming NASA engineers for the Apollo 13 or Columbia disasters.

To wait until all risks are known and until there is zero chance of failure would destroy all progress and innovation. You can always do more for safety, but at some point doing more means not doing. If Lewis and Clark cared about safety, they never would have found Oregon. If astronauts weren’t willing to risk their lives, we’d have never landed men on the moon. Exploring hostile, unknown environments, whether uncharted forests, outer space, or 5,000 feet beneath the sea, is an inherently dangerous activity, and disasters are inevitable. That’s the nature of the beast.

So the proper question is not “how angry should we be at BP,” or “how should BP have prevented the disaster,” or even “how do we prevent future oil spills.” Rather, we should ask, “given the inevitability of disaster, are the benefits of an inherently dangerous endeavor great enough to justify the costs of a worst-case disaster when it eventually happens?” Is it worthwhile to put ourselves in a position where catastrophic accidents are bound to happen--and which we may not be able to get ourselves out of?

In this case, the answer is pretty obvious: the scale of the BP disaster shows that there really is no reason to pursue deepwater drilling. It’s already the largest oil spill in US history, and we haven’t even seen the worst possible impacts. Plumes of oil could cause a collapse of the Gulf of Mexico food chain. A hurricane storm surge would bring the oil miles inland, destroying even more habitat than anticipated. And for what? For slightly cheaper oil? So some people can make money? When we have alternatives readily available in the form of smaller cars and driving less?

It’s a similar lesson for climate change. Sure, we don’t know for certain how devastating the impacts of global warming will be, but they could be unthinkably huge—and the worst ones we probably haven’t even imagined yet. Do we really want to risk destroying the planet, all for the sake of saving a few dollars off our utility bills and buying cheap goods that don’t actually bring us happiness?

The bottom line: humans simply don’t have the capacity to understand all the risks before taking action. When those risks are potentially catastrophic, we need to take a long, hard look at the benefits of action before moving forward.


Government is the problem until you need a solution

Climate Craps: Uncertainty and climate change

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