Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is the BP gusher the greatest ecological disaster in US history? No.

"On Meet the Press recently, energy and climate czar Carol Browner said the Gulf spill is 'probably the biggest environmental disaster the country has ever faced.' In a speech this week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the spill 'the largest environmental disaster in American history.'

"Both were eager to show how seriously the Administration is taking this disaster – and both were wrong. America is in the middle of several environmental disasters whose impacts affect not only the Gulf Coast, but all our coasts and everything in between.

"One of the crises, of course, is global climate change – the insidious self-afflicted tragedy whose adverse impacts already are underway, some to be felt for the next 1,000 years according to government researchers.

"Another is freshwater supplies. After surveying water officials around the country in 2003, the General Accounting Office reported that 36 states were expecting shortages of fresh water by 2013, even without drought. Some experts say those shortages are already underway with adverse consequences for energy production, agriculture and peace between neighbors. As the Economist recently noted in a special section on water, we can find substitutes for oil but there is no substitute for water.

"The casualty list goes on: ocean acidification, nitrogen loading, the destruction of wetlands, forests falling to fires and bugs, the decline in soil fertility due to mono-agriculture, the loss of biodiversity, all with very real consequences for our economy, safety and health."
The BP oil gusher (it is not an oil spill, which implies a finite container spilling out) is indeed a terrible disaster and will continue for many weeks or months yet. But it is not going to end the world. It will continue to be a very major problem for the Gulf of Mexico, especially the southern states of the US.

Yet as this quote points out, it is neither the only nor the greatest ecological disaster in the US, let alone the world. We just don't hear as much about the others because they don't have sexy pictures of birds covered in oil, occur on timescales of years or decades rather than weeks or months, and because they cannot be easily blamed on a single company or individual.

Although these other disasters might not make as many headlines, this doesn't mean they are smaller or less important. I have previously attempted to list some of the many ecological and resource challenges facing the world (not just the US). It is tempting to pick one of these and decide that it is the most crucial and minimise the others in order to make more political elbow-room for one's favourite cause, but that is ultimately short-sighted. We need to face them all. They may not be equally threatening, but black-and-white thinking that assumes that for one to be taken seriously, the others can or must be ignored is itself one of the great dangers we face.

Indeed, one of the second order problems is that so many of these threats are interrelated. Biodiversity loss is multiplied by climate change. Deforestation contributes to carbon dioxide levels. Peak oil will tempt us to exploit non-conventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, accelerating the loss of boreal forests. Decline of fish stocks increases pressure on agriculture and soil degradation. Monocultural agriculture creates nitrogen runoff and creates oceanic dead zones. And so on and so on.

Let us not lose the wood for the trees. These connections are crucial to understand so that we don't push down a bump in the carpet only to have it reappear elsewhere. Any response requires joined up thinking that can see patterns and relations. So many of these problems have underlying causes in the rapid growth of human activity associated with the globalisation of industrialism and its evil twin, consumerism. Until we face the roots of these issues, we are merely trying to treat the symptoms, often in ways that could ultimately worsen the prognosis.


byron smith said...

A little perspective.

byron smith said...

The Guardian's live blog of the grilling of oil execs by a US Congressional hearing yesterday is hilarious. And sad. All five major companies had almost identical published plans for dealing with a disaster, which included references to protecting walruses and the contact details of a expert who died in 2005. Best quote of the day came from Ed Markey, chairman of the committee: "The only technology you seem to be relying on is a Xerox machine."

byron smith said...

A little more perspective: the equivalent of almost 8,000 Gulf gushers are pouring into the atmosphere every day.

byron smith said...

Another environmental ethicist agrees with me.

byron smith said...

"The world is saturated by coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the impacts of this tragedy are localized, short-term and trivial compared to the broader effects of climate change."

Read more about a series of new studies in Science on the impact of carbon emissions on the oceans. It is suggested that it is more accurate to describe what is happening as "ocean change" than "climate change" since the effects on the former will be (and already are) so enormous.