Over the past few days, it has become increasingly clear that the worst of the BP Gulf oil spill is now over. The accident on the Deepwater Horizon in April was a very serious one, causing the deaths of 11 workers and costing billions of dollars to clean up, work which will continue for some time to come. But as spiked predicted, the accident and its aftermath has simply not lived up to its billing by President Barack Obama as ‘the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced’.
The first lesson we should learn is that modern society has a capacity to fear the worst. In the early days after the accident, we were promised that the beaches of the southern US would be painted black by thick crude oil, that fisheries would be wrecked for years and the tourism industry destroyed. Yet there were always good reasons to believe that these things would not happen: the oil was being blasted out of a torn pipe one mile deep and 50 miles offshore in warm waters. A combination of natural dispersal, evaporation and bacterial decomposition meant that a lot of oil would never make it ashore. Also, the use of booms to block the oil, chemical dispersants and oil-skimming vessels helped to ensure that only a small fraction of the original leak made it to dry land.
Nor has there been the wildlife armageddon that many predicted. As a recent article in Time magazine notes, the teams looking for dead birds ‘have collected nearly 3,000… but fewer than half of them were visibly oiled; some may have died from eating oil-contaminated food, but others may have simply died naturally at a time when the Gulf happened to be crawling with carcass seekers’. That would appear to be less than one per cent of the number killed when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. The number of dolphins found in the aftermath of the current crisis has been low, too: just three have been found dead and visibly oiled.
Not only does the death toll on our feathered friends bear favourable comparison with previous oil accidents – it is also far lower than the number of birds killed by wind farms. A recent study found that windfarms in just one area of Washington state kill 7,000 birds and 3,000 bats every year.
Today’s panicky human instinct is not confined to oil spills. Over the past year or so, we have also been told by the head of the World Health Organisation that ‘all of humanity is under threat’ from swine flu, and European airspace was shut for nearly a week because of an excessively precautionary reaction to a relatively small, distant volcano in Iceland.
The flipside of such fearful overreactions – and the second lesson of the oil spill – is a tendency to underestimate resilience, both humanity’s and nature’s. There has been criticism of the way that both BP and the US authorities were slow to respond to the crisis and of the many failed attempts to plug the leak. But in recent weeks, the level of the response has been impressive, bringing to bear enormous resources and engineering innovation to plug the leak and scoop up the oil. Already, BP has announced a scaling back of the clean-up operation. As a report in the UK Daily Telegraph noted: ‘The sea’s warm surface and oil-munching bacteria have dissipated the slick to such an extent that a planeload of journalists had to fly for an hour before their pilot could find a patch of oil. His relief, according to one reporter on board, was comparable to the anxious captain of a tourist boat spotting a distant pod of dolphins.’
What’s the betting that after the oil slick has gone for good, the Gulf of Mexico’s fishing grounds bounce back quickly? Indeed, given a few months free from fishing, might we find that fish stocks next year are better than before the accident? We’ll have to wait and see.
A third related lesson is that what might be a disaster in one place and time is not necessarily a disaster in another place and time. For example, a drought-induced famine even a few decades ago could cause mass starvation, but in a world where there is a well-developed global market for food, alongside good communications and transport, there is no need for localised food shortages to lead to millions of deaths. Similarly, the level of rain that has killed at least a thousand people in Pakistan in the past few days would almost certainly have caused a far lower loss of life in more developed countries. In the case of the Gulf oil spill, 11 people have died. That makes it a terrible accident, but not a disaster.
This leads us on to lesson four: that the reaction to a crisis can cause more harm than the original problem. While Louisiana’s fishermen have been re-employed by BP to assist with the oil clean-up, softening the blow to their businesses, the tourism industry has been hit hard. In the midst of the crisis, Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, complained that businesses ‘have been clobbered because of the misperception that our whole coast is knee-deep in oil’. This led to the farcical situation where, after the Obama administration had spent weeks talking up the scale of the disaster, the first lady Michelle Obama was doing photo-ops to reassure the world that most of the area’s beaches were safe, clean and ‘open for business’.
Again, this mirrors the effect of previous overreactions. The closing down of European airspace earlier this year cost airlines and insurance companies millions of pounds and caused unnecessary misery for thousands of travellers. A similar panic in 2003, when a new respiratory illness, SARS, struck south-east Asia and Canada, cost billions of dollars in Asia alone for a disease that ultimately killed fewer than a thousand people. (More familiar respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis and pneumonia kill far more.) Sometimes, ‘better safe than sorry’ is a costly and misguided idea.
These are lessons that should inform our responses to a wide range of problems, but in particular to climate change, an issue where the science, economics, impacts and timescales make a rush to judgement particularly foolish. Just as with the Gulf oil spill, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there is a potential problem to be faced. The scale of the problem, however, is unknown at present. But we do know that to the extent that there is a change in global temperatures, it will play itself out over decades. That’s a period in which the whole world should become substantially better off both economically and technologically. Even nature – usually treated as the dumb, voiceless victim of human greed in such discussions – could adapt to a warming world very well.
Above all, given society’s contemporary capacity for anxiety and overreaction, we need to be sceptical about every new declaration of doom, particularly when it is dressed up in the language of scientific ‘fact’. If there is a simple lesson from the Gulf oil spill, it is this: find out, don’t freak out.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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