Monday, June 14, 2010

Well, DUH: Environmental lessons from Gulf of Mexico disasters

Something that I think both tree huggers and tea partiers agree on is that Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill were serious bummers. But it's harder to find agreement about why these disasters occurred and what we should do to prevent similar bummers in the future. Here I will present what I think are the most obvious lessons to take from the Gulf of Mexico tragedies. Since I'm a scientist who studies environmental processes, I'm mainly going to focus on the scientific and environmental angles, but at the end I'll segue into a diatribe against corporate rule.

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina


*In sketchy places, don't build more than you can afford to lose.
If you want something to last a long time, you shouldn't build it in a sketchy place where the land is changing rapidly or natural disasters are frequent and severe. For example, you shouldn't put a big city below sea level in a sinking swamp in the middle of a hurricane zone. If it's too late- you or your predecessors already built in a dumb place -you should think seriously about the cost:benefit ratio of protecting what you built versus cutting your losses and moving on.

*Beaches, barrier islands, and river deltas are sketchy places.
The land of a delta is made up of mud and sand deposited by the river when it floods or changes course. The land is constantly sinking as the underlying mud and sand settle and pack down. The only thing that keeps the land surface above sea level is that new mud and sand are periodically piled on top by floods. Of course, if you channelize the river to stop it from flooding, like they've done with most of the Mississippi, then the sinking land never gets replenished. It just sinks lower and lower, and the ocean creeps closer and closer, requiring ever more expensive and complex dikes, pumping, and dirt-moving projects to protect human settlements. It's a similar principle with beaches and barrier islands. Sand is constantly being added and subtracted by wind, waves, and tides, so the beaches and islands are constantly growing and shrinking, appearing and disappearing. If you build a jetty or bulkhead or something to try hold one part of the beach in place, chances are you'll be making things worse for another part of the beach by cutting off its supply of sand. You can't win! If I had a chance to re-do how beaches and barrier islands are developed I'd leave most of them as low population-density natural areas sprinkled with parks, campgrounds, boat and windsurf access areas, and occasional little fishing and vacation towns with dirt roads and rental houses and hostels set back behind the dunes. More like Hatteras Island and Ocracoke and less like Miami Beach.

*If something is in a hurricane zone, it WILL get hit by a hurricane.
Over a lifetime of a city located in a hurricane zone, it's inevitable that the city will be struck by multiple hurricanes, including some really bad ones. So structures and dwellings in the city should be built tough enough to last, cheap enough to replace, or mobile enough to relocate in a hurry. Or not built at all. It's unwise to let hurricane-zone cities expand beyond the size and level of complexity that's easy to organize and evacuate.

Lessons from the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster-


*Don't take big, unnecessary risks where the result of failure will be an unstoppable mega disaster.
Accidents are inevitable. You shouldn't be allowed to do something if you're not prepared to deal with an accident.

*Some of the oil underground is best left underground.
The fossil fuel industry and their political allies would like you believe that it's a travesty to leave any oil deposits untapped. They say we're headed for a terrible crisis if we DON'T drill like crazy, which is a lie. The truth is that worse crises come when we DO drill like crazy, as evidenced now in the Gulf of Mexico and in the skyrocketing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Folks talk about capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and burying it underground to reduce the atmospheric concentration. Wouldn't it make more sense just to leave CO2-producing fossil fuel in the ground in the first place? Yes, yes it would.

*Increasing our SUPPLY of energy is not the only way to deal with our nation's increasing DEMAND for energy.
The industry would like you to think it is, but increasing supply is definitely not our only option. I mean, hello, what about REDUCING demand? Which is crazier, 1) rushing to consume every drop of a non-renewable resource as fast as possible without consideration of the environmental risks or what the hell you're going to do when you run out, or 2) reducing your incredibly wasteful consumption until your energy needs are small enough to be met by safe, renewable sources. Two, the answer is two.

Segue into a rant against corporate rule-

Obama made a speech the other night about how he was going to hold BP accountable for the spill cleanup, work towards a sustainable energy future, blah blah blah, yeah yeah yeah. But the upcoming energy bill he alluded to (being overseen by Lieberman, ugh) will likely be similar to every other bill introduced in the past few decades in that it's written largely by corporate lobbyists to cater to corporate interests, with toothless regulations and lots of tax breaks and stuff. It will have the same kind of corruption by corporate interests that is obvious in the healthcare bill, farm bills, wallstreet bailouts, military contracts, tax laws, etc. (Unless we demand better.)

Yeah, it's a very uncool situation we're getting into, where any popular initiative to do something good and sensible, like reduce pollution or increase the health and well-being of average folks, gets shot down by the ma$$ive influence of the corporate lobby. Scary. It even happened in the horrendous recent supreme court decision to allow UNLIMITED political campaign contributions by corporations, the last thing we need. In addition to the lobbying and campaign contributions problems there's the "revolving door" situation, where government regulators at the highest level, like the EPA and the FDA, get high paying jobs at the corporations before and after their political stints, and of course, earn their pay by giving the corporations the laws they want; deregulation, tax breaks, subsidies, etc. That kind of thing is what allowed the rampant, reckless offshore drilling that lead to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. No one besides the government has the power to regulate corporations, so if the government and corporations side together, we're pretty much screwed.

The root problem with corporations, the thing that makes them evil, or amoral at best, is that their legal structure drives them only to generate short term profit. They have a disincentive to do anything moral or ethical or sensible in the long term because those kind of things usually interfere with short term profit. What they do have an incentive to do is crush the competition, crush their own employees with terrible wages, crush their customers with ripoff prices and bad service, and change the laws that govern how they do business so that they can crush even more.

I'm not against free market competition and all that. But the situation we have now is like a game where we let the players with the highest scores make the rules. Of course they're not going to penalize themselves. Folks need to step up and demand strong regulation of corporations based on sound ethical and scientific principles, and to demand much stronger measures to get rid of the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics.

End of rant, for now.


Anna Douglass Ojanen said...

Very well said bro. I feel cynical, but I don't see how things are EVER going to change. Everyone is looking for win-win solutions that do not require any changes in their own personal behavior. Americans view any sacrifice for the environment, no matter how small, to be too much to ask of the general public.

Also, I just have to say, I irrationally want to restore and preserve New Orleans in all its grandeur.

JSW225 said...

For the most part, very sound commentary.

But while alternative energies would be cool to use, under the best most liberal estimates of how much power they will provide, it'd only be a fraction of what fossil fuels or nuclear energy does provide separately.

Can't wait til you get another camera, your videos are the most fun windsurfing ones out there (partly because of music choice).

James Douglass said...

Anna- Yeah, New Orleans is a pretty cool and unique city. I sure had fun visiting there when you were at Tulane. The historical part is on a little higher ground, so at least that should be around for a while, hopefully.

JSW- Yeah, with the amount of power we use now, it would be very hard to supply it with just alternative energies, so we can't quit cold turkey on oil and nuclear. But that's why I think conservation and efficiency are so important. We could probably reduce our energy consumption by 75% or more with better building designs, shorter commute distances, shorter food transport distances, season-based diets with less meat, less disposable goods and packaging, etc. Then our energy demand would be low enough that most of it could come from renewable sources. Obviously we've got a long way to go, though.

I can't wait until I get another camera, too. I think windsurfing magazine is going to reimburse me for one, so stay tuned for that... :)

ivan1949 said...

I am an American living in Singapore for the past 4 years, where I learned to wind surf, seems like a long process (still learning), but that was how i stumbled across your Blog. I agree with all of your political vents, unfortunately their are to few of us! The core issue is definitly short term profits. You would think that the oil companies would self regulate themselves so as not to incur Gov. regulations that hinder them and may not help ? But that never seems to be the case. Assuming that we will not be able to remove the focus of short term profits, than the only option would be a comprehensive Gov. energy package, that does encourage Wind, Tidal, solar and who knows what other renewable energy sourse are out their. Unfortunately I am not sure the current Political party has the political capital to make this happen, maybe the second term? but unlikely .

Thanks , Ivan