Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

05/01/2010 (1:54 pm)

The Price of Doing Business


The oil slick from the BP drilling rig that exploded and sank last week is just a few miles from the Louisiana shoreline, threatening oyster beds, fish spawning areas, and other wildlife along the coast. It was expected to touch ashore by nightfall on Friday, but apparently did not. Now experts are saying that currents could carry the oil slick to the east coast of Florida (yes, the east coast.) Efforts to use an undersea vessel to activate a shutoff valve near the wellhead have failed, and alternative measures could take weeks or months to implement. Though the volume of oil from this spill is still nowhere near the volume that leaked from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, this could turn out to be as costly when measuring damage to the livelihoods of working Americans along the Gulf Coast.

Incidents like the Exxon Valdez and this one give us reason periodically to consider the cost of maintaining an industrialized society.

The technological explosion and economic growth of the 19th and 20th centuries raised billions of people out of abject poverty and provided the great mass of ordinary people around the globe with basic sanitation, antibiotics, inexpensive clothing and food, transportation, communication, and other advantages in a lifestyle that was unavailable to kings in earlier eras. The West has nothing for which to apologize when we consider the advances conferred by technology. And yet, the price of that technology includes occasional accidents of a magnitude previously only produced by random acts of God, like volcanoes or earthquakes.

The question is, can we face those, work sensibly to minimize and contain them, and yet not succumb to the temptation to abandon technology? Victims and governments will initiate a head-hunt soon, looking to find a scapegoat on which to pin the blame. Gulf coast fishermen are grousing about how they were misled by BP, and some have already filed suit. Environmentalists are already using photos of waterfowl endangered by the oil slick to obstruct public support for the issuing of new offshore drilling leases. Can we competently assign responsibility without succumbing to the urge to create demons?

Accidents happen. So do stupid humans. And so long as those things are true, the advance of technology will be accompanied by the periodic accident.

Like accidents, politicians and governments also happen. Wherever they do, the self-righteous posture and puff to use the events to enhance their own images, and the gullible are taken in by the display. “At least they’re doing something.” Sure thing.

The important things that need to be done are procedures for minimizing the occurrence of accidents and improving the response to them. This almost never requires new regulation; BP is already, under existing law, going to pay the cost of the cleanup, not to mention the exorbitant public relations cost of having owned the platform that caused the incident. The incentives to avoid future accidents of this sort far exceed anything that can be accomplished by new regulations, and none of the techniques currently being used to prevent or clean up spills are the result of regulation. But new regulations will be written, because politicians need to appear to be doing something in order to impress gullible constituents.

Meanwhile, other useful lessons will be missed altogether. I recall a little less than 2 years ago, clueless liberals in Congress were wondering out loud why oil companies needed leases on offshore oilfields when they already held leases on millions of acres, and did not believe it when they replied that drilling in the existing leases was far more difficult. Why, wondered Nancy Pelosi (D, the Planet Brainless), should we “subsidize” them by letting them pay for leases on fields where the oil was more readily available?

The current incident explains why (among other reasons). Accidents like these are far more likely, and far more costly, when one is forced to drill for oil at the bottom of the ocean, a mile from the surface. It’s not just a question of more profit, as Nancy Pelosi imagined; there are real, tangible consequences to withholding fields where oil is easier to reach and forcing oil companies to drill where it’s hard. But of course, Nancy Pelosi will draw the wrong conclusion and insist that we shut down industrial society altogether, rather than accept blame for her role in the disaster. Pelosi should be required by law to man (woman?) one of the recovery vessels herself, as punishment, though it’s unlikely that anyone who’s reached her stage of life with as little understanding as she has, can actually be taught anything useful.

Technology on the whole has been an enormous boon to humankind, but that boon comes with a cost. It is at times like this, when the cost becomes most apparent, that it becomes most necessary to keep a cool head and resist the knee-jerk hysteria of the weak, the self-serving, and the tyrannical.

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1 Comment »

May 1, 2010 @ 2:46 pm #

And the honestly mistaken.

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