"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Our ecological commitment

I have been watching the news from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is hard not to see the news.  But our seemingly endless thirst for energy has done far more environmental damage than the disaster occurring in the Gulf.  We tend to turn a blind eye though because the disaster is located in the wrong hemisphere.

To be sure, the Guardian’s headline is a bit strong “Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill.  The US and Europe ignore it.”  However, the volume of oil extracted in Nigeria, the relative lack of appropriate maintenance on the oil infrastructure, and the near absence of Nigerian-related news readily accessible in major news outlets suggests to me that the article itself is strongly on point.  Reading the story breaking from the Gulf, I see the generally creative, innovative and risky engineering decisions being made to stop the spill.  I cannot help but see that these solutions remain untried and untested to the point where I wonder if we even seriously played the “What if?” game to try to identify and test potential engineering disaster solutions before we needed them.

But the sad truth remains that we restrict ourselves to caring about ecological disasters in our backyard.  Even acknowledging a major ecological disaster does not produce the same response that an economic disaster produces.  When gas was $4 a gallon, you could not escape conversations to reduce our insatiable thirst for energy.  However, environmental disasters seem so far afield from the economic realities that shape the potential for disaster.  We can ignore and mistreat the environment, provided no one really takes notice.  And if someone does notice, we’ll do what we can.  Additionally, we concentrate our manufacturing in places where we have a ready excuse: in Africa, the people lack the ability to maintain an appropriate infrastructure so it is not our fault.

Few ideas so capture our imagination quite like “quality of life” and “standard of living.”  Yet we position things as a zero-sum game of power and exploitation, focusing in on one particular piece of the technical problem without a holistic technical solution.  We build technologies for oil extraction without considering oil-laden disasters.  As an engineer, both challenges represent important technical challenges.  Yet extracting oil “fuels our economy” whereas cleaning up oil is a marginal problem because of “safe” technologies.  And they are only “safe” when in the hands of a skilled technical workforce with solid resources to maintain it.  Yet we will also build those resources for domestic drilling by working within multi-national corporations where we can turn a profit easily despite ecological disasters in the developing world.

To be clear, the problem here does not lie exclusively with the oil companies.  The engineers working to clean up the spill in the Gulf have a monumental task ahead of them.  The conversation needs to shift towards why we take the risks we take and how those risks can be best taken while honoring the humanity of others we meet along the way.

Imogen Heap performing “Earth” live with the Chicago Vocal Authority Additionally, Imogen is selling live improvised pieces to benefit all sorts of charities, quite a few with environmental foci.

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14 responses

  1. rhardaway

    I also think that the media is culpable for this event. Why wasn’t a substantive investigation done on oil drilling by any of the major networks? It is was huge issue in the campaign. Anyway, if you get a chance, check out this great blog on the issue – it is titled CNN: refracted culpability
    http://anelegantfeast.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/cnn/

    1 June 2010 at 12:55 pm

    • I will definitely check that out. Generally I think that virtually all parties in energy exploration avenues can offer better disclosure of the risks. It would be a most encouraging thing indeed if the media could devote some of their energy to making true environmental risks. The Deepwater incident has to do a lot with the risks associated with off-shore drilling, which I consider real risks, as opposed to concerns about birds hitting wind farms. (I’m more concerned about the energy required to make wind turbines as their main environmental risk factor but don’t have the ability to comment directly.)

      1 June 2010 at 1:00 pm

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Our ecological commitment « A Practicing Human -- Topsy.com

  3. Hoy no se que decir he llegado hasta aquí de casualidad lo mal hecho mal hecho está tenemos que evitar lo mas posible

    1 June 2010 at 4:12 pm

    • My Spanish is not where it used to be, but I think the gist of the comment is: “Today I don’t know whether we should talking about the tragedy that is so bad or that we should try to avoid the worst possible”

      And generally, I agree that talking about what happens today can help us avoid it in the future. We must be aware of the past, living in the present, and planning for the future.
      If someone is better at Spanish, please provide a better translation for me! Thanks!

      1 June 2010 at 4:21 pm

  4. Pingback: Our ecological commitment | rssblogstory.com

  5. Amo a música

    1 June 2010 at 7:43 pm

  6. Pingback: Our ecological commitment (via A Practicing Human) « NJ Hunger Action and Advocacy

  7. Songbird

    Maybe the intensive media coverage will spark a brand new conversation re: off shore drilling, people who have not taken note before I’m sure are not able to avoid it now!!

    2 June 2010 at 2:06 am

    • I’m definitely hoping that this engineering disaster changes the tenor of the conversation we seem to be having. This Friday, I’ll be posting a Friday Forum on “Oil: What is it good for?” exploring the problem space a bit more.

      2 June 2010 at 8:14 am

  8. That was an amazing video, thanks for the share

    2 June 2010 at 5:17 am

    • Someone captured this video live at the Imogen Heap concert in Chicago. She’s incredibly talented and wonderful to see live. Presently she’s touring in the United States if you have a chance to go 🙂

      2 June 2010 at 8:15 am

  9. Speaking of media coverage, the NY Times ran a feature piece today. In particular, I find it interesting the myriad of companies potentially at fault for the disaster as so many companies performed so many services to dig this well. It will be interesting to see how the investigation plays out.

    There also seems to be factors of scale at work, where ideas remain in the hands of disconnected individuals. This article describes the situation of a Pittsburgh professor, who in all likelihood is well-placed to describe oil recovery processes. Generally speaking, oil research comes from oil companies themselves rather than with oil companies sponsoring so-called independent university researchers.

    2 June 2010 at 8:24 am

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