How Quickly We Forget

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, May 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

How Quickly We Forget


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Our addiction to cheap energy has a way of clouding memories of even the most vivid disasters.

In trying to predict the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the obvious places to seek clues are other mammoth oil spills. We can look to the coast of Brittany, where on March 16, 1978, the Amoco Cadiz tanker ran aground en route from the Persian Gulf to Le Havre, spilling 68 million gallons of oil and causing an 18- by 80-mile slick that polluted 200 miles of coastline. Or we can analyze the June 3, 1979, blowout of the Ixtoc I, an exploratory well 600 miles south of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, which spilled more than 420,000 gallons per day until it was capped the following March. Or we can look to Prince William Sound, where on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef while leaving Port of Valdez, Alaska. The 10.9 million gallons of crude that gushed out of its hull made this the worst oil spill in U.S. waters, though it now has competition from the Deepwater Horizon, which sank in the gulf on April 22, Earth Day.

The truly lasting effect of such disasters is not the obvious, however. It isn't the millions of dead mollusks and sea urchins in Brittany, which also saw the almost complete disappearance of some crustaceans, tens of thousands of dead birds, and decimated oyster beds and fisheries. It isn't the massive bird kills (especially royal terns, blue-faced boobies, piping plovers, and snowy plovers) caused by Ixtoc, most of whose oil stayed far out at sea rather than hitting vulnerable coasts. And it isn't the still-moribund herring fishery in Prince William Sound, the otters and harlequin ducks there that are still exposed to Exxon oil, or the Alaskan coastal communities that have yet to recover economically or psychologically.

The legacy of environmental catastrophes is, instead, a hybrid of amnesia and habituation. That is, the public forgets more quickly now than in the past, and understands that no source of energy is risk-free. Coal kills miners, including the 25 in West Virginia last month. Natural-gas pipelines sometimes explode and occasionally kill, as in a 2000 accident that left 12 people dead in New Mexico. Nuclear reactors, despite industry assurances, will never be risk-free; no technology is. The "risks" of renewables such as wind and solar are higher energy prices, which to many people are less acceptable than the environmental and human costs of fossil fuel. "There has been a generational change in risk tolerance," says engineering professor Henry Petroski of Duke University, author of the 2010 book The Essential Engineer. "The public has become more familiar with the concept of risk, and the fact that it is ubiquitous. The bumper sticker S--T HAPPENS used to be a fringe phenomenon, but now it's mainstream: people have become resigned to risk."

As a result, the effect of energy-related environmental disasters on public consciousness and public policy is becoming more and more fleeting. The Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill of 1969--another blowout--sparked the green movement (the first Earth Day was the following year) and made expanding offshore oil drilling a political nonstarter for decades. Northern California was even exempted from President Obama's call in March for expanded offshore drilling. But the political and public-opinion effects of massive oil spills are not what they once were. Granted that the extent of the Deepwater Horizon accident was not clear at first, it is nonetheless striking how long it took environmental groups to muster outrage. Blogs on the Natural Resources Defense Council's Web site noted the blowout on April 23, a day after the rig sank, but then not again until April 29. (Last week there were roughly seven posts a day.) It was almost oh, well, just another oil spill.

The muted reaction initially--and, to go out on a limb here, probably over the long term as well--arguably reflects a radical shift in what environmental risks we are willing to tolerate. …

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