While things seem to be otherwise moribund around here, I just thought I'd share a detail of an image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra satellite. For some reason when I come across these images they stop me cold. If there were an attack on the country in which we live we would be inundated with images about it constantly. And yet, the profound environmental threats that we are facing are for the most part swept under the rug of discussions of short-term economic harm to people along the coast and how to compensate them.
I suppose reading everything in terms of short-term economic impact shouldn't surprise me -- these days, nothing is more important than daily stock prices, and we've begun to worry more about those than those obsolete concerns like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But there is still something deeply disconcerting about a moment when we've just added poison to the cup we're drinking from, as we are turning up the thermostat to make the room we're in even more uncomfortable, and somehow manage to keep acting as if we know what we're doing.
We don't know what we're doing, though. And I think there is a reason that we still act as if we do. I've long thought that people often make fundamental errors in assessing risks because they apply models based on interactions with other people to how they deal with the natural world. It is understandable, but it leads to bad decisions.
With people, intent is very important. If a person pushes you, your assessment of the risk is crucial to your reaction. You look up, read their body language, and judge whether it was accidental or on purpose. Your response entirely hinges on this assessment. If it is accidental you smile or growl or whatever your personality dictates, but you don't mark down the person as someone to be avoided, or the location where it happened as a dangerous area. If it was on purpose, it is an entirely different story -- you kick into fight or flight mode, and afterwards change your habits in order to avoid getting into this situation.
Some threats fit into this intent model. I read the old Cold War novel Failsafe when I was a teen, about a detachment of bombers accidentally sent to drop nuclear missiles on Moscow. The novel hinged on the USSR's trying to discern the US intent. The moral quandary that faced the US President faced was the result of the need to prove that the missile launch was accidental. And indeed, a threat is a real threat if the person who bumped you did it on purpose, and just like your body's peripheral nervous system and switches into high gear if people perceive the media go berserk when someone means to do us harm. Hopeless shoe bomber, wall-to-wall coverage, and shoes become public enemy number one at airports across the world. BP spills 200,000 gallons of oil on Alaska's North Slope, and no one mentions it until they spill some 30,000,000 gallons (and counting) into the Gulf of Mexico.
Taking risks when driving at high speeds, though, doesn't fit that model. Contexts where we're "in control" don't worry us, even as consequences of a minute risk get more and more dire. Stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, working in hazardous environments, extracting natural resources deep underwater? We're in control, so any mishap would simply be an accident, and doesn't require us to change our habits. If we get pushed, but don't see bad intentions, we don't change our behavior. As a result we assess risk in situations like deepwater oil extraction particularly badly. The intention of the oil companies is to limit environmental damage and maximize profit, and that trumps the "blind luck" involved in using inherently risky technology.
It also doesn't help that questioning the importance of the producing oil is a taboo subject. Despite the prospect of long-term damage to the ecosystem of large part of the Gulf and even the Atlantic Ocean, with all the long-term damage to animals and people that will result, the majority of the policy debate about the response has to do with economic factors: compensating fishermen for lost income, BP's payouts and stock prices, the effect of a moratorium on other companies, and the impact on tourism. As long as the currency of the debate is dollars, long-term damage and more complex injuries to environment, health, ways of life, and the suffering of animals don't actually count.
Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael points to the importance of the story that we tell ourselves in dealing with Nature: "given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now." This analogy is made more accurate by the fact that, generally, in the media it is the deaths of Americans that "count" and are reported in foreign conflicts. Generally, it is only the economic impacts on people and corporations that "count" in BP's attack on the Gulf.
Which sucks for us, because our appetites for energy, in addition to causing us to engage in unnecessary wars, will keep us doing risky activities like deepwater oil extraction. We're not assessing the risk properly because we've stopped caring about anything in life but the dollars we stand to win in the game. And, like an addict, as long as we keep rolling the dice, we'll keep losing to the house.