Culture or Science to Prevent Disaster?

As we enter the sixth week of oil gushing unfettered into the Gulf of Mexico, some scientists and sociologists are asking how we (BP executives and Minerals Management Services employees who ignored safety warnings and consumers of petroleum alike) allowed this disaster to happen in the first place. Surely all of us, some more explicitly than others, anticipated the dangers of drilling at such unprecedented depths. And because of our addiction to gas-powered vehicles and petroleum-based products, all of us have contributed in our own ways to the series of events leading to the now unstoppable plume of oil. If we have the technological capability to drill 32,000 feet into the ocean floor, why are we not directing that capability full force toward the development of cleaner, less risky energy sources?

Research out of the University of Alberta attempts to answer this question. In his "System Failure: Oil, Futurity and the Anticipation of Disaster," author Imre Szeman found that consumption behaviors and views toward oil exploration generally do not change, even when people are confronted with sound scientific evidence linking disastrous environmental affects to fossil fuels.

Szeman breaks this disconnect down to three common rationalizations: 1) the idea that oil exploration equals economic security, and therefore is worth the risk; 2) the "eco-apocalypse" idea that freezes people's actions with its enormity; and 3) the phenomenon of what Szeman calls "technical utopianism," a blind faith that no matter what happens, improved future technologies will sweep in to clean up any messes we make.

Szeman concludes that shifts in behaviors concerning the health of the planet must be addressed anew, and not by piling on more science. Environmental stewardship is now a cultural and sociological issue, Szeman believes, and will not be improved on a large scale until it is addressed as such.

An article in last Sunday's New York Times touches on the third point of Szeman's triangle of environmental disconnect: technical utopianism. Elisabeth Rosenthal's "Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill" addresses this problem, and ends with a quote from the physicist/philosopher Richard Feynman: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."