RDN on oil spills and ecological disaster on R4 “Today”

I went on the BBC morning news show to say that the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico (a) might be dreadful but (b) would be the first such celebrity event to be an ecological disaster if it is one.

Having killed 11 workers, the event is already a human tragedy. Time will tell whether it emerges as a case of widespread, serious, persistent ecological damage. I am the first to admit it may.

But it is striking how the Amoco Cadiz (1978), Exxon Valdez (1989), Saddam Hussein’s Gulf War spill into the Persian Gulf (1991), Braer (1993) and Sea Empress (1996) were all widely advertised as potentially huge disasters, but were mostly seen to have had serious effects only for a year or so, if at all. My point (though I didn’t make this on-air) is that the anticipatory buzz got translated into a false history. People end up believing that these events did turn out to be as bad as was predicted as possible. (See details at my Life On A Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress, Manchester University Press, 1995, free download.)

[See below for some updated links for recent Exxon-Valdez and Prince William Sound research.]

Similarly, Chernobyl has for 25 years been characterised as having had massive consequences in cancer and birth defects. (See my www.chernobyllegacy.com.) The reality is sad enough, but much less powerful. Genetic modification of crops has so far failed to deliver the disasters which were predicted for it a decade ago. (See perhaps my pamphlet on the subject, GMOs: The troubled beginning of the 21st Century, IEA, 2000, free download).  BSE has proved horrible for a few hundred families, but not cataclysmic for the rest of us.

I do think things are improving. I mean that the media is slightly less prone to wind us all up nowadays, and the environmentalists have much less traction than they used to. I am also fairly sure that academics (especially at the universities of Lancaster and East Anglia) have failed in their bid of the 1990s to induce a sort of generalised anxietyabout industrial and ecological horrors, which they characterised as Risk Society (in which they followed some dreary germanic lines of thought). (See perhaps my Risk: The human adventure, ESEF, 2001, free download.)

I should have said that one of the pernicious tropes of media and campaign work is to say that such and such a disaster “may” happen, or has the potential to happen. The point here is that this is an unaccountable remark: just logically nothing would ever prove it wrong. It’s a safe and even cowardly class of remark.  

I notice that in the Obama administration anti-corporate riffs remain popular (“Our job basically is to keep our boot on BP’s neck” was Interior Secretary’s Ken Salazar’s charmless remark), and that is low rent stuff. Of course, it happens that BP’s back story is ripe with ironies, from its Beyond Petroleum smugness to its accident-prone recent US record. But anyone whose heart does not go out to the firm in its present crisis almost deserves to be on the receiving end of this kind of bad luck themselves, just for a chastening taste of what the fates can dole out.

Additional note

Updates on Exxon-Valdez and Prince William Sound:

Rather cheerful accounts:
Rather less cheerful account:

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Publication date

03 May 2010