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.