I just did something I’ve never done before. I spent a week at sea on a research vessel. I’m not a scientist but I was accompanying a remarkable scientific team from the University of South Florida that has been tracking BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
The scientists I was with are not studying the effects of the oil and dispersants on the big stuff—birds, turtles, dolphins. They are looking at the really little stuff, which gets eaten by slightly less little stuff, which gets eaten by the big stuff. What they found is that water with even trace amounts of oil and dispersants can be highly toxic to phytoplankton—which is a serious problem because so much life depends on it. So contrary to those reports we heard back in August about how 75 per cent of the oil has sort of disappeared, this disaster is still unfolding, still working its way up the food chain.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rachel Carson, the godmother of modern environmentalism, warned us about it back in 1962. She pointed out that the “control men,” as she called them, who carpet-bombed fields and towns with toxic insecticides like DDT, were only trying to kill the insects, not the birds. But they forgot one detail: the fact that birds dine on grubs and robins eats lots of worms—now saturated with DDT. And so robin eggs did not hatch; song birds died en masse. Towns fell silent, thus the title: “Silent Spring.”
I’ve been trying to pinpoint what keeps drawing me to back the Gulf of Mexico. I’m Canadian after all. I can claim no ancestral ties. And I think part of the reason is that we still haven’t come to terms with the full implications of this disaster. With what it meant to witness a hole ripped in the world. With what it felt like to watch the contents of the earth gush forth on live TV, 24 hours a day, for months.
After telling ourselves for so long that our tools and technology can control nature, suddenly we were face to face with our weakness, with our lack of control, as the oil burst out of every attempt to contain it: top hats, top kills and, most memorably, the junk shot, the bright idea of firing old tires and golf balls down that hole in the world.
But even more striking than the ferocious power emanating from the well, was the recklessness with which that power was unleashed. The carelessness, the lack of planning, that characterized the operation from drilling to clean up. If there is one thing BP’s watery improv act made clear, it is that as a culture, we are far too willing to gamble with things that are irreplaceable and precious to us. And to do so without a back up plan, without an exit strategy.
And BP was hardly our first experience of this in recent years. Our leaders barrel into wars telling themselves happy stories about cakewalks and welcome parades. Then it is years of deadly damage control. A Frankenstein of sieges and surges and counter-insurgencies and, once again, no exit strategy.
Our financial wizards routinely fall victim to similar over confidence, convincing themselves that the latest bubble is a new kind of market, one that will never go down. And when it inevitably does, the best and brightest scramble for the financial equivalent of junk shots—in this case, throwing massive amounts of much needed public money down a different kind of hole. And as with BP, the hole does get plugged, at least temporarily. But not before exacting a tremendous price, paid in homes lost and destroyed livelihoods.
We have to figure out why we keep letting this happen because we are in the midst of our highest stakes gamble of all: deciding what to do—or not to do—about climate change.
As we all know, a great deal of time is spent in the climate debate on the question: “What if the IPCC scientists are all wrong?” The far more relevant question, as MIT physicist Evelyn Fox Keller puts it, is: “What if those scientists are right?”
Given the stakes, the climate crisis clearly calls for us to act based on the Precautionary Principle, the theory that holds that when human health and the environment are significantly at risk, and when the potential damage is irreversible, we cannot afford to wait for perfect scientific certainty. Better to err on the side of caution. Moreover the burden of proving that a practice is safe should not be placed on the public that could be harmed, but rather on the industry that stands to profit.
Yet climate policy in the wealthy world—to the extent that such a thing exists—is not made based on precaution but rather on cost-benefit analysis: finding the course of action that economists believe will have the least impact on GDP. So rather than asking, as precaution would demand: “How can we act as quickly as possible to avert catastrophe,” we ask bizarre questions like: What is the latest possible moment we can wait before we begin seriously lowering emissions? 2020? 2050? Or, how much hotter can we let the planet get and still survive? 2 degrees Celsius? 3? 4—what we are heading for right now?
And this last question is interesting because the assumption that we can safely control the Earth’s awesomely complex climate system as if it had a thermostat—making the planet not too hot and not too cold but just right, Goldilocks style—is pure fantasy. And it isn’t coming from climate scientists, it’s coming from economists imposing their mechanistic thinking on the science. The fact is that we simply don’t know when the warming we create will be utterly overwhelmed by feedback loops.
So, once again: why do we take these crazy risks? A range of explanations probably pop to mind. Like greed. Or perhaps hubris. And greed and hubris are intimately intertwined when it comes to recklessness. Because if you happen to be a 35 year old banker taking home a hundred times more than a brain surgeon, then you need a narrative, a story that makes that disparity okay.
And you don’t have a lot of options: either you’re an outrageously good scammer, and you are getting away with it. Or you are some kind of boy-genius the likes of which the world has never seen. Both options are going to make you vastly over-confident, and therefore prone to taking riskier gambles in the future.
By the way, Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, had a plaque on his desk engraved with the following inspirational slogan: “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?”
Now, a lot of people have that plaque. So I want to stress that pushing fear of failure out of your mind can be a very good thing if you are training for a triathlon, say, or writing a TED talk. But personally, I think the men with the power to detonate our economy and ravage our ecology would do better having a picture of Icarus hanging on the wall. Because I want them thinking about the possibility of failure all the time.
So we’ve got greed, and we’ve got overconfidence/hubris. But let’s consider one other factor that could be contributing in some small way to our societal recklessness: Men.
All kinds of studies have shown that, as investors, women are much less prone to reckless risk-taking, precisely because they tend not to suffer from over confidence. So it turns out that being paid less and praised less has its up sides—for society at least. The flip side, however, is that being constantly told that you are gifted, chosen and born to rule has distinct societal down sides.
This problem—call it the perils of privilege—brings us closer to the real root of our collective recklessness. And none of us in the global north—neither men nor women—are fully exempt. Here’s what I mean.
Whether we actively believe them, or consciously reject them, our culture remains in the grips of certain archetypal stories about our supremacy over others and over nature. The narrative of the newly discovered frontier and the conquering pioneer. The narrative of manifest destiny. Of apocalypse and salvation.
And just when it seems that these stories are fading into history, they show up, in unlikely places. For instance, I recently stumbled across a Motorola advertisement outside the women’s washroom in the Kansas City Airport. It was for the company’s new rugged cell phone. As a man gnaws on the phone to prove its ability to withstand the elements, the ad exhorts us to “Slap Mother Nature in the Face.” And it struck me that, in its own way, the bizarre ad was a crass version of our founding story—we slapped mother nature around and won. And we will always win, because dominating nature is our destiny.
But this is not the only fairy tale we tell ourselves about nature. There is another one, equally important, about how that very same “mother nature” is so nurturing and so resilient, that we can never make a dent in her infinite abundance.
Let’s hear from Tony Hayward again. You remember this one: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” In other words, the ocean is big. She can take it.
It is only this underlying assumption of limitlessness that makes it possible to take the reckless risks that we do. Because this is our real master narrative: however much we mess up, there will always be more: more water, more land, more untapped resources. A new bubble will replace the old one, a new technology will fix the mess we made with the last one.
That, in a way, is the story of the settling of the Americas, the supposedly inexhaustible frontier to which Europeans escaped. And it is also the story of modern capitalism because it was the wealth from this land that gave birth to our economic system—one that cannot survive without perpetual growth and an unending supply of new frontiers.
The problem is that the story was always a lie. The Earth always did have limits, they were just beyond our sights—and now we are hitting those limits on multiple fronts. I believe that we know this. And yet we find ourselves trapped in a kind of narrative loop. Not only do we continue to tell and retell the same stories, but we are now doing so with a frenzy and a fury that frankly verges on camp.
How else to explain the cultural space occupied by Sarah Palin? On the one hand exhorting us to Drill Baby Drill because god put those resources in the ground in order for us to exploit them. And on the other, glorying in the wildness of Alaska’s untouched beauty on her hit reality TV show. The twin message is as comforting as it is mad: ignore those creeping fears that we have finally hit the wall. There are still no limits, there will always be another frontier. So stop worrying and keep shopping.
Would that this were just about Sarah Palin. In environmental circles, we often hear complaints that, rather than shifting to renewables, we are continuing with “business as usual.” That assessment is far too optimistic.
The truth is that we have exhausted so much of the easily accessible fossil fuel that we have already entered a much riskier business era—the era of extreme energy. That means drilling for oil in the deepest water—including in icy Arctic seas, where a clean up may simply be impossible. It means large-scale hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") for gas and massive strip mining operations for coal. And most controversially, it means the tar sands.
I am always surprised by how little people outside Canada know about the Alberta tar sands, which this year are projected to become the #1 source of imported oil to the United States. And it’s worth taking a moment to understand this practice because it speaks to recklessness like little else.
The tar sands live under one of the last magnificent old-growth boreal forests. But the oil underneath those trees is not liquid, you can’t just drill a hole and pump it out. Tar sands oil is solid, mixed into the soil. So to get at it, you first have to get rid of the trees. Then you rip off the top soil and dig up the stuff—a process so disruptive it requires enlisting the biggest dump trucks ever built. It also requires a huge amount of water, which is then pumped into massive toxic tailings ponds. That’s very bad news for local indigenous people who are facing unusually high cancer rates.
Tar sands extraction is growing so fast that the project can already be seen from space and could grow to an area roughly the size of England. This is not oil drilling. It is not even mining. It is terrestrial skinning. Vast vivid landscapes are being gutted, left monochromatic grey.
I should confess that as far as I’m concerned, this would be an abomination if it emitted not one particle of carbon. But the truth is that on average, turning that gunk into crude oil produces about 3 times more greenhouse gas pollution per barrel than it does to produce conventional crude oil in Canada.
How else to describe this but as a form of mass insanity? Just when we know we need to be learning to live on the surface of our planet—off the power of sun, wind, and waves—we are frantically digging to get at the dirtiest, highest emitting stuff imaginable.
This is where our story about endless growth has taken us: to the tar sands, this black hole at the center of my country. A place of such planetary pain that, like the BP gusher, one can only bear to look at it for so long. As Jared Diamond and others have shown us, this is how civilizations commit suicide: by slamming their foot on the accelerator at the exact moment they should be putting on the brakes.
The problem is that our master narrative has an answer for this too: At the very last minute, we are going to get saved. Just like in every Hollywood movie; just like in the Rapture. But of course our secular religion is technology.
You may have noticed more and more headlines like “Geoengineering: A Quick, Clean Fix?” (Time) or “Solar Shield Could Be Quick Fix for Global Warming” (New Scientist).
The idea behind this form of geo-engineering is that, as the planet heats up, we may be able to shoot sulphates or aluminum particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays back to space, thereby cooling the planet. The wackiest plan would put what is essentially a garden hose 18-and-a-half miles into the sky, suspended by balloons, to spew sulfur dioxide. It’s the ultimate junk shot.
The serious scientists involved in this research all stress that these techniques are entirely untested. They don’t know if they will work, and they have no idea what terrifying side effects they could unleash. Nevertheless, the mere mention of geo-engineering is being greeted in some circles with relief tinged with euphoria: An escape hatch has been located! A new frontier! We don’t have to change after all!
You see, for some people, their saviour is a guy in a flowing robe. For others, it’s a guy with a garden hose.
The bottom line is that we badly need some new stories. We need stories that have different kinds of heroes—and we need heroes willing to take different kinds of risks. Risks that confront recklessness head-on, and that put the precautionary principle into practice—even if that means direct action.
Like the hundreds of young people getting arrested blocking dirty power plants, or fighting mountain top removal coal mining. Like the indigenous people and ranchers in the US banding together to stop a new pipeline carrying tar sands oil. The organizers call it the “Cowboys and Indians coalition”—a new twist on an old myth.
Most of all we need stories that replace linear narratives of endless growth with circular ones that remind us that what goes around comes around. That this is our only home. There is no escape hatch. Call it Karma if you like. Call it Physics: action and reaction.
Or call it precaution: the principle that reminds us that life is too precious to be risked for any profit.