Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spewing Oil

Today, the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will spew another 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil into the sea. That’s around 500,000 to 800,000 gallons. And it may get worse before it gets better. It makes me feel bad for refueling my car.

In the 4.6 billion years of the planet, until we came along, no living being could make such a colossal mess of things. And in the brief 250,000 years or so humankind has been around, it’s only been the last 100 that we’ve been able to do such a bang up job of it.

Sure we could wipe out species, cause erosion and pollute air and water -- but not on such a grand scale. Since the early 1900’s we’ve learned how to create global warming, how to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons and now, how to drown it in oil that was safely at rest miles under a mile deep ocean floor. That’s progress.

Part of the problem is that we under-estimate risk until after the fact. We’re wired to be optimistic. We’re just so darn hopeful. But, as my glassblowing partner used to say to me, “hope is not a plan.”

How in the world did we allow deep-ocean drilling without thinking about and preparing for the consequences of things going wrong? It seems crazy in hindsight. It’s certainly taken the wind out of the recent campaign chant, “drill baby drill.”

Even though we’re wired to take risks, we’re also wired to be adaptable. We’re good at fixing things after they’re broken. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 because we were playing Russian roulette with o-rings, we took a step back to review and remediate risks. Things went pretty well since then (with the notable exception of The Columbia in 2003 when we again gambled, this time with the integrity of the thermal protection system.)

Can we prevent future oil catastrophes? Can we neutralize global warming? Can we put the nuclear genie back in the bottle? Can we kick the gambling addiction?

Sometimes you have to have hope to start a plan. I hope we’re planning now and hope it’s not too late for this fragile, minuscule marble in space we call home.