On Oil Spills and the Risks of Modern Civilization

I think there’s some truth to the argument made in this US News & World Report article. Basically, so it goes, Americans (and, probably, all of Western civilization) are too far removed from the dirty stuff to understand just what it takes to fix the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. To that I’d add that they’re also too intellectually lazy to learn to conceptualize such things even in the lack of direct experience.

This seems right:

It’s all so last millennium, that filthy business in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

It reeks of yesterday’s fuel, yesterday’s sweaty labor – a hands-on way of life from another time. Today’s Americans don’t care to know how the gas comes to the pump, the food to the table, the iPad to the store.

Just make sure they do.

I’ve often thought the same as I have conversations with people who think the leak is proof that drilling for oil is inherently a bad thing, and that we should just stop. I think about the profound complexity of modern civilization, from the production of so many goods with so few people (only 14% of the US work force, as the article points out), to the massive distribution network that makes it possible to eat avocados out of season in such faraway places as the Midwest, to the almost magical ability to hold an entire conversation with someone on the other side of the planet in real time on a handheld device.

Folks just don’t get such things, and so they call for government—who they also see as magical—to overcome obstacles that they don’t comprehend. That today’s government is ever so happy to oblige is fodder for a different discussion.

The article finishes with:

If Aristotle were blogging about all of this, he would probably have little patience with the armchair experts and the pontificators who think the solution should be as easy as Malia Obama suggested when she asked her father, "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"

The Greek philosopher said "those who dwell in intimate association with nature" are apt to understand the big picture. "Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view."

I disagree with this only in that I think people should be able to conceive of such complexity, only they’re just not willing to do so. Being ignorant has always allowed such people—most people, unfortunately—to evade reality up until reality strikes out and bites them. That Aristotle himself wrote about such things means that this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but then his time didn’t have TV and movies and the Internet to provide people with the next best thing to hands-on experience. If people don’t understand the difficulty of drilling 5,000 feet underwater, then it’s their own damn fault.

The result of such ignorance, of course, will be blind calls for less—or no—drilling that ignore the reality of what that and all drilling makes possible. Nobody wants to give up the miracles of modern life, but they’ll stand on the sidelines and call for the destruction of what makes such miracles possible. To do otherwise would force them to face the far more difficult reality that what they enjoy most in life comes from things that entail the risk that something might go wrong.

They would need to recognize that leaks can happen when you tap into the Earth’s mantle, that radiation can be released when you harness the power of the universe’s most fundamental forces, that bacteria can grow on plants that are transported from a farm thousands of miles from their final destinations. Such risks are legion, and most people evade the fact it’s take such risks or, well, die anyways—after an abbreviated lifetime of abject poverty, starvation, and struggle followed by an ignominious death. Such has been the lot of mankind throughout most of our history, and the vast majority of Westerners live lives of relative ease and comfort as the direct result of the risks we take.

In short, we trade the certainty of a short and brutish life for the possibility that a well might leak, or a nuclear power plant might melt down, or the spinach salad might contain microbes that make us ill. The problem is, most people don’t know this because they choose to believe that things just happen—that the food is delivered on time, that the water is drinkable, that the light will turn on when they flip the switch.

One day, we’ll find ourselves hungry, thirsty, and in the dark. And, it will happen because we refuse to recognize that some oil gushing out of a broken well is part of the price we pay for the good life.

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