Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

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Inevitability and oil, Pt. 2: the “end of oil” and human empathy

Never thought I’d actually get around to a Pt. 2, eh?  Well, I’ve shown you!  Here’s the first part: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology

For decades now economists and scientists have predicted the “end of oil:” the day when we use up our oil reserves, potentially resulting in economic collapse, starvation, chaos, you know, the apocalypse, whatever.  It’s a strange science – part speculative geology (if you can imagine such a thing!), part economic theory, and at least 2 parts anxiety.

Why is the “end of oil” such a problem?  It is well summarized in Wolfgang Haber’s 2007 leading article in Environmental Science and Pollution Research: our dependence on fossil fuels is an “ecological trap.”  While it is easy to consider our species as above competition, as we now dominate the planet, we have reached this state as simple organisms trying to out-compete others and maintain (and expand) our own population.

How did we do this so successfully?  First of all, we are the only organism (as far as I know) that obtains energy from an external source: that is, through fire.  Our ability to burn various substrates (initially wood, moving onto fossil fuels such as coal and oil later) allowed us to expand our range and create accessibility to new food sources through cooking.  Thus the first ecological trap: to maintain our current population, we need to have something to burn.  Forests and wood are sustainable to a point, but with our current population, we’d go through our reserves pretty quickly.

According to Haber, the second major “ecological trap” is farming.  The switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture created a human dependence on soil (easily nutrient-depleted by farming itself) as well as space devoted to farming.  Once again, the advent of large-scale agriculture allowed our population to boom, and created a niche for people who don’t need to work – such as scholars – but now we are wholly dependent upon outside food.  Could you forage for yourself if needed?

And thus, while our species has outcompeted all others, we are trapped in a sense: bound to fuel for fire, and bound to soil which is not easily replenished at the rate of its use.

Traditionally, drilling for oil and mining have not held too many moral questions.  The main question has been, “what are we going to do when we run out?”  After all, these fossil fuels are not being used by other species, and their removal doesn’t seem to have any effects on ecosystems.  But after the BP oil spill (as with the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and suggestions of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge), there has been an outcry to reduce our dependence on oil not for our species’s own survival, but rather because of the damage we do to other species.  That while drilling in and of itself may not be harmful, its effects can be.

From here I will overview some of the typical outlooks on what will happen at the end of oil, and then provide some reflection on conservation as an argument for reducing drilling.

Anthropocentrism: the viewpoints on the end of oil (briefly)

In his 2007 article in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Imre Szeman asks whether or not the “end of oil” is truly a disaster – a disaster for humankind, or just the status quo of our society.  He outlines the 3 central ways that people think about the end of oil.

  1. Strategic Realism.  This viewpoint is held by those deeply invested in maintaining the current economic and political spheres of our species.  The questions asked are more about how the political structure of the world will change with the “end of oil,” and finding solutions to keep the current powers and countries of the world in balance.  To quote Szeman, “Those who employ [this viewpoint] – and it is a discourse employed widely by government and the media alike – suspend or minimize concerns about the cumulative environmental disaster of oil or the fact that oil is disappearing altogether, and focus instead on the potential political and economic tensions that will inevitably arise as countries pursue their individual energy security in an era of scarcity.”
  2. Techno-utopianism. Techno-utopianism and strategic realism often go hand in hand: it is the discourse of dreamers who believe that science and technology will provide new access to oil and new technologies, which will enable us to maintain the capitalist economy.  Our lifestyles will not change, but rather we will simply replace oil with a new form of energy, such as nuclear or hydrogen.  It relies heavily on the idea that scientific innovation is just around the corner – that our solutions will arrive in time.
  3. Apocalyptic environmentalism.  The apocalyptic environmentalists follow a different train of thought: that the “end of oil” will change everything.  That social and political change will not only come, but will be necessary – that the carrying capacity of the planet will fall, standard of living will fall, and there is nothing to be done about it.  The difference between this viewpoint and the others is that it serves a pedagogical purpose, as Szeman explains: that we need to change our actions now, moving towards a “simpler, non-affluent way of life.”

The role of Homo sapiens in conservation

These viewpoints, all of which you’ve probably witnessed, are all anthropocentric in nature.  And this makes sense – we are a species trying to compete, and right now a resource we’re dependent upon is threatened.  We need to think about how we, Homo sapiens, are going to survive this.

While economists often like to talk about the “end of oil,” I don’t have a good feel for the public mindset on the topic.  While the “sustainability movement” is picking up speed, it often feels to be, frankly, bullshit sold at Whole Foods wrapped in 10 layers of plastic packaging to make people feel better about themselves.  I can tell you this: I hadn’t noticed so much attention aimed toward ending our oil dependence until we saw pictures of pelicans covered in oil right in our own backyard, our own fishing grounds, affecting our own people in the BP oil spill.

While a competitive species should be concerned about this for their own sake, this recent rise in “oil awareness” is instead due to the harm we’re causing other species.

I’ve had many discussions lately about the anthropocentrism of our species, and how that affects the ways we view our environment.  Some argue that conservation, while seeming altruistic, is actually the wrong way to think about the environment.  That species have gone extinct for millennia; that invasive species do not exist; that the preservation of our environment is based on how we view “nature” and not how it functions itself.  (See this comic for a simple representation.)  That our care for nature or animals is selfish in itself, as they are symbols for how we view nature and places that we value aesthetically.  Some even suggest that we give up on conservation efforts altogether and let evolution and nature take their course, even if it means our own extinction.

The response to the oil spill has shown that this empathy for other organisms (a sense which we evolved, I might add) may have more motivating power than our own survival.  That our desire to assist those in struggle – whether they be oiled birds or starving people – creates a greater response than the thought that, sometime in the future, we may have to drastically change our lifestyles.  This may be due to its immediacy, as we can save a bird RIGHT NOW but adjusting our carbon footprint or energy use will not have effects in the short-term.  After all, as I said earlier, we are a competitive species: while ideally we all agree that preserving the status quo for our children is a good idea, we still are selfish and need to succeed the best we can now, so those good intentions are often left to the wayside.

While I do agree that we cannot save every species and that natural selection must take its course, I also consider that we evolved empathy.  Homo sapiens have an instinct to try and help each other, other organisms, and “nature” generally, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense competitively.  I, however, think it makes perfect sense: we need these resources in order to survive.  We need a sense of the importance of “nature” and a drive to conserve it for our own good.  The fact that we can “feel their pain” gives us an incentive to save them, and thus preserve our own resources.

So to those who look down on empathizing with nature?  I say: haters gonna hate.  We need a reason to reduce oil dependency, encourage technological innovation, rethink our society in order to continue to compete as a species.  Clearly the thought of the “environmental apocalypse” isn’t a good enough motivator.  If our empathy with hurt animals or disgust at our own species for ruining “perfect nature” is the cause, so be it.  We need a reason, any reason.  I say let’s follow our instincts and try to make change, if not for ourselves, then for the pelicans.

ResearchBlogging.org Haber, W. (2007). Energy, food, and land — The ecological traps of humankind Environmental Science and Pollution Research – International, 14 (6), 359-365 DOI: 10.1065/espr2007.09.449

Kerr, R. (1998). GEOLOGY:The Next Oil Crisis Looms Large–and Perhaps Close Science, 281 (5380), 1128-1131 DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5380.1128

Szeman, I. (2007). System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster South Atlantic Quarterly, 106 (4), 805-823 DOI: 10.1215/00382876-2007-047

Written by Hanner

August 5, 2010 at 10:21 am

Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org When I read updates on blogs or the news about the BP oil spill, my expression is generally very serious: furrowed brow, pursed lips which I’m probably chewing in alternation with gnawing a nail.  But last week I laughed out loud, a true LOL, a brash guffaw.  (“What?!” my labmates inquired.)

I had read this New York Times article recounting the reactions of the executives of other oil companies during the Congressional hearing as they attempted to assert that this sort of accident would never occur at their own companies’ wells.

“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” said Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

“It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place,” said John S. Watson, chairman of Chevron.

“It’s not a well that we would have drilled in that mechanical setup,” said Marvin E. Odum, president of Shell.

The idea that this would never happen at another deep-sea well is preposterous to me.  That the risks of drilling a mile into the ocean – to depths that require robots (yet another form of technology) for access, in order to draw back up pressurized matter from mostly unexplored pockets –  can be calculated and prepared for seems absolutely ridiculous.  And although the execs are using exact and technical language to ensure that they will never be made hypocrites, the message they are trying to send is: BP messed up.  We act more responsibly and would never have made such mistakes.  We should be allowed to continue drilling in the deep.

Many people seem ready to play the blame game, plug the whole thing on BP and call it a day.  I, however, think that this accident presents an opportunity for us to reflect upon what it means to be a society reliant on complex technologies whose failures can cause disaster.

I. A little bit of theory…

When talking about risk theory and safety, two main ideas come up in the scholarship:  Normal Accidents Theory (NAT) and High Reliability Organization Framework (HROF), which can you read about in quite thorough detail in this article from Organizational Studies.

The term “normal accidents” was coined by Charles Perrow in his 1984 book Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (available on Google Books) to describe accidents that are not caused by a single, definite error – but are rather due to inherent problems in complex systems.  The two qualities that lead towards “normal accidents” or “system accidents” are:

  1. A system complex enough that not all outcomes can be predicted, leading to a potential situation where 2 failures could interact in an unexpected way, hiding the true cause of the problem; and
  2. The system is “tightly coupled” – meaning that processes happen very quickly, and the parts are entwined so closely that individual parts cannot be separated from one another.

These two qualities combined create a system for which there is “insufficient time and understanding to control incidents and avoid accidents,” as the Organizational Studies article states.

Perrow himself compiled this theory after the incident at Three Mile Island.  Three Mile Island was a nuclear reactor outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania which underwent a partial core meltdown in 1979.  In this near-disaster, two seemingly contradictory “safety devices,” meant to alert the crew of problems in the reactor, went off simultaneously, distracting the staff from the real problem: a stuck steam valve.  Luckily, an engineer put the pieces together with less than an hour to spare.  This is an example of a “normal accident” – where the complexity of the reactor, that is, the system’s “normal” existence, nearly caused disaster itself.

In reaction to Normal Accident Theory, the more optimistic High Reliability Optimization Framework was born.  It’s originators, Todd La Porte and Karlene Roberts, describe an alternate scenario, in which complex systems are able to run incredibly smoothly and without fail for long periods of time.  Citing aircraft control operations as an example, they explain that the technology is not the issue, but rather the complexity of the organization.  As long as all the people working on the ground are highly trained in both technical function of the system and safety, complex systems are not doomed to fail.

While both theories are flawed (as the article mentioned above outlines), I find the Normal Accidents Theory to be more useful.  It seems obvious that if all employees are highly trained in all areas, things would flow smoothly.  But, I’m sorry to report, that doesn’t seem to be the case for most systems and industries.  Normal Accident Theory informs a different way of looking at technology and thinking about accidents – a view revealing that there is an inherent danger, and to be slightly wary.  A useful view in terms of planning, training, and honesty.

II. Is the BP Oil Spill a “normal accident?”

The BP oil spill does not fit perfectly into the Normal Accident framework.  There were a number of specific mistakes that were made that led to the spill – at least that’s what the reports are saying for now.  (That is, it’s not “normal” unless cost-cutting and neglecting safety are considered “normal.”  It does feel that way sometimes…)  Upon hearing my initial lamenting at the onset of the spill, my father sent me this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in order to provide some “useful perspective.”  (Thanks, Dad.)  It was published in 1996 and is a reflection on a fatal (and comparable) accident that occurred 10 years prior: the Challenger explosion.

The Challenger was NASA’s second space shuttle, which underwent liftoff successfully 9 times.  However, on its 10th liftoff in 1986, it exploded just 73 seconds off the ground, killing all seven crew members.  The first 9 times, the rubber O-rings contained hot gas and kept it from ignition by rocket fire.  But the 10th time they failed.  Engineers had warned NASA that it was too cold for take-off, but the top men insisted that they stay on schedule.  Thus it was a combination of mechanical failure and human hubris that caused the Challenger exposion.

The BP oil spill is a similar case.  The hubris of man, the need to drill quickly and cheaply, led to cost-cutting and mechanical failure (as the media currently reports), resulting in a massive oil slick that will continue to grow in the months, if not the years, to come.

As I mentioned previously, I am not confident in deep-sea drilling technology.  Granted, I don’t know much about it, and the current inundation of the interwebs in oil spill opinions makes finding reliable information nearly impossible.  Maybe I’m the one being irrational here, but I just cannot see how this technology is not risky in and of itself.  I am not confident in the other oil company executives,  claiming that their systems are not flawed.  While BP’s spill was not a “normal accident,” it does not preclude other rigs from having them.

This is why all the finger-pointing at BP irks me.  They made some serious mistakes and will pay the consequences – I’m not letting them off the hook.  But by having an easy scapegoat, we, the public, can easily ignore the greater issues at hand such as the inherent risk for disaster in these complex systems, or the fact that we’re drilling a mile deep into the ocean floor for fuel in the first place.  It’s too easy to make this accident out to be a huge mistake made by greedy corporate white men instead of contemplating that fact that this could have happened just through the nature of the system.

In his book Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology, James Chiles writes:

A lot of us are offering our lives these days to machines and their operators, about which we know very little except that occasionally things go shockingly wrong… Later study shows that machine disasters nearly always require multiple failures and mistakes to reach fruition.  One mishap, a single cause, is hardly ever enough to constitute a disaster.  A disaster occurs through a combination of poor maintenance, bad communication, and shortcuts.  Slowly the strain builds.

We are all human.  We all know what it’s like to procrastinate, to forget to leave a message, to have our minds wander.  In his book, Chiles argues, citing over 50 examples in immense detail, that most disasters are caused by “ordinary mistakes” – and that to live in this modern world, we have to “acknowledge the extraordinary damage that ordinary mistakes can now cause.”  Most of the time, things run smoothly.  But when they don’t, our culture requires us to find someone to blame instead of recognizing that our own lifestyles cause these disasters.  Instead of reconsidering the way we live our lives, we simply dump our frustration off so that we can continue living our lives in comfort.

It is too easy to ignore the fact that the risk of disaster comes with technology, especially ones that incorporate a form of energy such as nuclear power, rocket fuel, or, here, the potential energy of pressurized crude oil.

III. Prospective: incorporating Normal Accident Theory into our culture

At the beginning of his New Yorker article, Gladwell outlines the “ritual to disaster:”  the careful exposition of the problems that went wrong, the governmental panel, the pointed fingers.  Rereading it a month after I first received it, I can see this ritual unfolding before me.  It occurs on the premise that we can learn from our mistakes – that the pinpointing of the precise events that led to disaster can help us avoid repeating ourselves.  But Gladwell asks: “What if these public post mortems don’t help us avoid future accidents? … [Perhaps they] are as much exercises in self-deception as they are genuine opportunities for reassurance.”

If Chiles and Perrow are right – if risk and thus potential accident are built into the nature of complex machinery run by humans – we should not be reassured.  We can certainly learn from our mistakes and try to keep replicate disasters from occurring.  But, as Chiles points out, if all concern is thrown into the one part of the system that has been harmed before, it will only leave other parts to corrode and rust without our notice.

What would it mean for us to “accept” that our technology is flawed, that “normal accidents” will occur?  It would not lessen the impact of disasters.  But if an acceptable discourse could be developed to address inherent risk in machines without striking fear into the masses, if the topic were no longer untouchable or taboo, we could better prepare for “normal accidents.”  For while industries mostly employ specialists these days, in these accidents (or near-accidents), the answer comes instead from large-scale thinking.  Chiles describes it as a game of chess in which “a chess master spends more time thinking about the board from his opponent’s perspective than from his own.”

We have to combine our risk assessment theories – we have to aim for the optimistic High Reliability Optimization Framework, trying to turn as many people on the team into “chess masters” as possible, without getting overconfident.  Although “normal accidents” cannot be predicted, the HROF should include training in what a “normal accident” is.  Even the mere knowledge that the machinery may not always act the way its supposed to is better than nothing.

But for now, the disaster ritual will continue, just as it did with the Challenger and other disasters.  BP will take the blame and foot the bill.  In several months or years, there will be a public apology and ceremony to remember the 11 rig workers who died.  And the President will announce: We have learned our lesson from the BP spill.  We will not make this mistake again.  Deep-sea drilling is reopened, we are reborn.  “Your loss has meant that we could confidently begin anew,” as Captain Frederick Hauck said of the Challenger in 1988.

There are other fundamental differences between the BP oil spill and the other man-made disasters: its expanse in both space and time.  The Challenger explosion, while a great tragedy, was swift.  There were no long-term effects felt by the general public (excepting the families of the astronauts).  But this spill is far from over.  By ignoring the inherent risks in deep-sea drilling, we are potentially setting ourselves up for another long-term disaster, affecting millions of people, wildlife, ecosystems.  I don’t think we can afford a repeat.

ResearchBlogging.org Chiles, James R.  Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Gephart, R. (2004). Normal Risk: Technology, Sense Making, and Environmental Disasters Organization & Environment, 17 (1), 20-26 DOI: 10.1177/1086026603262030

Gladwell, Malcolm.  1996.  “Blowup.” The New Yorker.  Jan 22, 36.

Leveson, N., Dulac, N., Marais, K., & Carroll, J. (2009). Moving Beyond Normal Accidents and High Reliability Organizations: A Systems Approach to Safety in Complex Systems Organization Studies, 30 (2-3), 227-249 DOI: 10.1177/0170840608101478

Perrow, Charles.  Normal Accidents: Living with high-risk technologies.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Weick, K. (2004). Normal Accident Theory As Frame, Link, and Provocation Organization & Environment, 17 (1), 27-31 DOI: 10.1177/1086026603262031

Written by Hanner

June 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

Posted in Journal Article, News

Tagged with

Built to spill: is this the ecological disaster we’ve been waiting for?

The oil spill seen from space.

The oil spill is destroying me.  My poor roommate, friends and coworkers are having to deal with my constant blathering about the BP oil spill in the Gulf, how it could effect ecosystems, people, and whether it will be enough to shift development toward sustainable resources.

It’s simply heartbreaking.  I’m not going to focus on trying to blame any corporate conglomerates right now (although the spill, or rather, gush is seemingly the cause of pure negligence), for we have greater speculative issues at hand.

Ecological disaster looms.  Oil is a poison floating in the water.  It blocks sunlight from reaching the seafloor, and the oil blanket seems poised to spread into the wetlands, killing off much of the benthic life in the diverse estuaries.  The egg masses of spawning fish will be enveloped.  Birds migrating North, reliant on much of this marshland, will find themselves only oil to land on.

Our methods for cleaning involve burning, sending huge amounts of smoke into the air, leaving behind a nasty sludge, and only changing the 3% of the slick that is on the surface.  The novel method, using dispersants to break down the oil, can dissolve the blob, but would leave uncountable oil particles for ingestion by organisms in the entire ocean, contaminating much of our seafood.

With fisheries already closed up and down the coast, many people have lost their livelihood at the peak of the season.  No one is sure how long it would take fish recruitment to recover if the majority of eggs were destroyed – but these people could lose their jobs, their connection to their family history, further depressing towns that were already in bad shape after Hurricane Katrina.

But is this not the environmental disaster we’ve all been waiting for? That sounds terrible, as if I’m excited for the spill (which I am most certainly not), but it’s got to be said.  After decades of trying to draw attention to the need for sustainability and conservation, if not to directly preserve our resources but simply to save ourselves, with little luck, I (and others, I’m sure) have been praying for some sort of human-caused environmental disruption.  Environmental lobbyists and scientists could say, “I told you so,” and it would reveal the dire need to switch to more sustainable resources and control our carbon emissions.  Can anything besides failure of the current system convince people that change is required?

The Deepwater Horizons oil spill has the potential to be the disaster we’ve dreamed of.  In terms of public relations, think of all the terrible images we could see on the news if the oil reaches the coast, of the slick-covered birds and fish and mammals.  Unlike the Exxon-Valdez spill, which had its effects mainly limited to wildlife due to its remote location and thus was easier to ignore, this spill could affect millions of people.  Real Americans, ones who had been living in small towns and continuing the fishing traditions of their grandfathers.  And two decades later, we are far closer to having the technology needed for more sustainable energy.

Workers treat an oil-covered Northern Gannet on Friday

My greatest fear is that nothing will change.  That a huge, off-shore oil rig exploded — a symbol of our driving need to find oil in more difficult places and the dangers it poses — spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, killing countless animals and plants, hurting peoples’ lives, requiring massive amounts of time, manpower and money to clean up, and a month later we will act like nothing happened.  Continue to drill excessively, continue to overconsume and not invest in sustainable practices for the sake of convenience, forget that it even happened.

In a dream world, this will start off a cascade of federal funding and legislature in support of sustainable practices.  But I have sadly developed into a pessimist regarding the ability of both the legislators and citizens of this country to take any sort of action, change their own lives in any appreciable way, if they have not personally been affected by disaster.

What to do for now?  Try to write and educate as much as possible.  Most of what I’ve written here is completely speculative; the oil has not reached the marshes yet.  (But it is imminent.)  In the midst of the beginning of this, it might seem crazy that people will stop paying attention to it.  But I’ve already heard complains about the endless talk — we cannot let it die down.  I will continue to cover the spill as it develops.

I also signed this petition from Surf Rider to restore the moratorium on offshore drilling.  It’s the easiest – just type in your zip code and they’ll send it to all the appropriate people for you.

And, lastly, try and brainstorm how you personally could become less oil-dependent.  Even reducing the use of plastic can make an impact.

Here are some links to other blogs covering of the spill.  Please peruse.

Written by Hanner

May 4, 2010 at 8:20 am