Engineering prof contributes oil spill op-ed

Published: Jul 27, 2010 7:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Sally Credille,, 334-844-3447

Source: Press-Register


T. Prabhakar Clement


Special to the Press-Register

The Big Lesson

The continuing manmade catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest event in a long-established pattern of systemic "disconnects" between the way that nature works and the way our society perceives and utilizes natural resources.

Our history is replete with crises that have arisen from overextended efforts to generate power, extract nonrenewable resources, indiscriminately harvest renewable resources, synthesize toxic chemicals, and transform the landscape for the purpose of social and economic development.

The Three Mile Island accident, the Bhopal gas tragedy, destruction of tropical rainforests, New Orleans levee breaches and the draining of the Aral Sea are a few examples of manmade nature-vs.-society conflicts. In each case, there is sufficient evidence that we think and act in ways that eventually violate nature's laws and limits, and some of us inevitably and inequitably suffer the consequences.

As a society, we still have not recognized this pattern of anthropogenic overreach and nature's kickback.

On April 20, a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, resulting in the discharge of millions of barrels of crude oil. Its aftermath presents urgent social, economic, ecological, biological and technological problems that require immediate and extensive remediation.

President Obama has since created a National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The commission is tasked with determining the root causes of this disaster, developing options for guarding against and mitigating the impact of offshore drilling-related oil spills, and recommending reforms of federal agencies and processes.

No doubt, these are issues of great consequence. But we must not lose sight of the larger lessons that ought to be learned from this technological disaster.

While the commission must address immediate harm to nature and society, it must also put this event into a broader context and look at a larger, more systemic picture.

A fragmented, piecemeal approach to resolving the immediate economic and environmental issues, without serious consideration of the intimately interconnected cultural, political, ecological and technological systems, is doomed to fail.

Without the courage to think and act beyond the immediate concerns, we will be repeatedly blindsided by a continuous cycle of overreach and kickback that will be increasingly destructive to both nature and society.

So, what should be learned from the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath?

For one thing, we must take stock of our propensity to think and act sub-optimally to solve these problems.

Depending on our perspective and our programmatic and operational priorities, we make isolated and narrow decisions to maximize outcomes, without sufficient consideration for other highly interdependent natural and human factors.

In economic terms, we habitually maximize benefits and certainty for some, and externalize costs and risks to nature and other people, regardless of the consequences. What is missing is a sufficiently powerful framework that gives us a more holistic context for decision-making so that we better understand the broader consequences of our actions.

With this in mind, our recommendation to the president's commission is to take a two-track approach.

First, tackle the immediate and urgent issues as mandated. And second, the commission can start a process for creating a long-term, holistic framework for decision-making that breaks the cycle of sector-specific overreach and the unintended systemic consequences that inevitably result.

This means resolving nature-society conflicts by bringing human behavior in line with the laws and limits of nature.

We must make decisions which allow the Gulf ecosystem to provide the greatest benefit ecologically, economically, socially and culturally, to the greatest number of people over the course of many generations.

We recommend that the commission work with a team of experts, scholars, citizens and other Gulf stakeholders to create a vision of what a sustainable and healthy Gulf of Mexico would look like and develop a comprehensive multistate rehabilitation plan that reflects a broader vision.

Then it will be up to citizens and local, state and federal leaders to debate and codify the vision and bring it to fruition.

Until a plan is in place, extreme caution should be exercised when considering any environmentally sensitive activities in the Gulf.

The laws and limits of a healthy, functioning Gulf ecosystem set the context and define the boundaries within which we can sustainably operate. Understanding this ecological context and designing human uses accordingly will bring us closer to resolving nature-society conflicts and ensuring we do not repeat the disaster that confronts us today.

In our view, this is the lesson we most need to learn.

T. Prabhakar Clement is the Arthur H. Feagin professor of civil engineering at Auburn University; Michael Kensler is an administrator at the Water Resources Center at Auburn University; and Michelle R. Worosz is an assistant professor of rural sociology at Auburn University. More of their analysis can be found here.

Published: Sunday, July 04, 2010

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