What happens when we delve too greedily and too deep – maybe Gandalf can stop the gusher

[Note, this is a re-post from my old blog, WAG]

“Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear.”
– Gloin, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Dwarves of Khazad-Dum perished not because their analysts failed to plan for Balrog attack, but because their reckless lust to mine, control, and profit from the earth’s natural wealth led them into places they should not have been, unleashing forces they could not control.

Maybe we do owe BP boss Tony Hayward an apology – not for getting BP to pay for the clean up (seriously Republicans, don’t you remember the concept of personal responsibility?), but for the way he’s been demonized by the media and liberal activists. As if BP isn’t doing everything it can to stop the gusher.

We also owe the President and his officials an apology for the ridiculous assertions that the failure to stop the oil from flowing is somehow their fault. As if regulators and politicians can just invent technology to seal the leak.

Such misguided criticism spans the political spectrum. Climate blogger Joe Romm shrieks “Why oh why hasn’t Hayward been fired yet???” Sarah “half-term” Palin accuses the administration of not putting enough effort into stopping the oil leak – and gets called out by Bill O’Reilly. Frank Rich criticizes the President’s “impotence,” melodramatically portending, “What’s also being tarred daily by the gushing oil is the very notion that government can accomplish anything.” The CEO of Anadarko Petroleum – BP’s partner on the Deepwater Horizon well – stabs his onetime ally in the back to save his own skin, alleging that “this tragedy was preventable and the direct result of BP’s reckless decisions and actions.” For an industry built on ash and flame, oil is a cold cold business.

The truth is, the President isn’t Aquaman, and firing Tony Hayward will not seal the hole in the seafloor. If anything, a post-firing leadership vacuum would frustrate efforts to stop the gusher. As bad as we want a villain to blame and whose head to roll, there is no bad guy here. Accidents just happen: while any single accident may be preventable in hindsight, the laws of probability make eventual tragedy inevitable in any risky endeavor – especially 5,000 feet under the sea. If not BP, then Exxon or Shell [full disclosure, I own stock in Exxon Mobil]; if not in 2010, then 2012 or 2020. The oil spill doesn’t mean Tony Hayward is incompetent – it just means he is imperfect, because he is human, using imperfect technology invented by humans. “Blaming” BP makes about as much sense as “blaming” NASA engineers for the Challenger disaster.

Not that I’m shedding tears for BP. Hurt feelings are not the greatest harm in castigating CEOs and politicians for not staunching the oil, but rather the way in which such criticism paints the disaster as a technical slip-up rather than a philosophical mistake – a problem resulting from insufficient planning and engineering rather than the inevitable consequence of messing with forces we don’t understand. Much of the natural world is still a mystery to us, and failing to respect that mystery, placing too much faith in our engineering expertise, will end in tragedy.

In Greek mythology, the doom of Icarus was not that his wings were poorly constructed but that his technology carried him too close to the sun. In The Lord of the Rings, the Dwarves of Khazad-Dum perished not because their analysts failed to plan for Balrog attack, but because their reckless lust to mine, control, and profit from the earth’s natural wealth led them into places they should not have been, unleashing forces they could not control.

And that’s the lesson in the Gulf: the reason we can’t blame BP for the uncontrollable gusher is that the oil is not something humans can always control. BP’s disaster was indeed caused by recklessness, but not that of an individual company ignoring technical warning signs – rather, like the Dwarves, it was the collective recklessness of the human race in our wild thirst for comfort and wealth, subduing Man and Nature with vain rigor, not for truth or love or basic need but to fuel our production of stuff that is unnecessary for happiness. We pricked the earth and unleashed a fury we were powerless to undo.

The critics’ creeping technocracy, which assumes any problem can be broken into its component parts and methodically solved, casts Nature as something that can be subdued and controlled if only we throw enough money and smart people at it. If the disaster was merely a problem of BP’s “recklessness,” of not properly anticipating and fixing technical risks, then there’s nothing inherently dangerous with the activity of offshore drilling itself – and the great human project to conquer Nature and engineer her to our image of the mathematically perfect world marches on.

This is not to say that we should never take risks or venture into the unknown. But when we take such ventures, the prize must be a higher purpose than profit, and the harm of any inevitable disaster confined mostly to the venturers themselves.

The unknown unknown of what would happen if a deepwater rig failed is tragically being answered before our eyes: 15 times worse than we ever thought possible. This local spill, of course, offers a grim preview of the looming, great Unknown Unknown of the 21st Century which we’ve just begun to taste: global climate change. Skeptics claim that uncertainty in the science means we can continue recklessly pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, when in reality the uncertainty is exactly why we must stop. Just as early estimates of the oil spill turned out to be woefully low, we have no idea what the worst consequences of climate change could be – and I don’t want to find out what they are. The longer we mess with Nature, the likelier we are to get burned – and not every fire that’s started can be easily put out.

The story of the BP spill is not about an overlooked technical fix that could have prevented a disaster, but about what happens when we pry into forces of Nature we don’t understand and certainly can’t control. The tragedy of Moria was not that the Dwarves didn’t predict the location of the Balrog which would have enabled them to continue digging safely, but that the greed of their digging itself made disaster inevitable. Eventually, they would have run out of safe places to dig.

In The Lord of the Rings, it took a wizard to defeat the menace awoken by delving too greedily and too deep. Unfortunately there’s no such magic in the real world, and neither President Obama nor Tony Hayward are wizards. Not all that is done can be undone; not every problem can be prevented.

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