Archive for the ‘Disasters’ Category


The Repugnant Conclusion

May 14, 2010

Many years ago, Derek Parfit described a state of affairs that he dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.” He noted that for “any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” He wasn’t actually advocating for population policies that encouraged growth so as to improve global happiness, no matter a single individual’s quality of life. He found such a conclusion repugnant.

Though not exactly parallel, today’s insensitive comments by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, remind me a bit of that conclusion. “Hey,” says Hayward, cheer up. This spill of oil in the gulf is “relatively tiny” compared to the enormity of the ocean.

He might as well extend his comments temporally across geologic time. Not only is this spill relatively tiny compared to the enormity of the ocean, but in the grand cosmic scheme of things, this is a very small bit of oil. Several decades from now, the ocean will clean itself up, the plants will return, and the losses will be largely unnoticeable to all but the most astute marine biologists, paleontologists and archeologists. The world will find a new balance.


Gun. To. Head.

May 12, 2010

Hard to say if this is, legally speaking, a case of duress, but if the charges are true, I’d say that, at minimum, the “you can’t go home” part ought not to have been uttered.

Workers aboard an exploding offshore drilling platform were told to sign statements denying they were hurt or witnessed the blast that rocked the rig, killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, their attorneys said Tuesday.

Survivors floated for hours in life boats in the Gulf of Mexico after the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, and were greeted by company officials onshore asking them to sign statements that they had no “first hand or personal knowledge” of the incident, attorneys said.

“These men are told they have to sign these statements or they can’t go home,” said Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney for 10 Transocean workers. “I think it’s pretty callous, but I’m not surprised by it.”

The manifold ethical problems associated with this single disaster are already pretty difficult to parse. It’s hard to know where to stick the fork in. Still, if it’s the case that signed statements like those referenced above exist, and if it’s the case that the rig workers want to change their testimony to say that they do have first-hand knowledge of the incident, I can’t imagine anything that would validate the content of the former statements.



April 30, 2010

Projections for the BP spill are that it will likely exceed the Exxon Valdez in damages to fisheries and wildlife, as well as to coastline. Expect to run your toes through oil and sand for the next few decades. While you’re at it, check out this compilation of facts from the Valdez spill. Here are a few points:

How many animals died outright from the oil spill?
No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

How are the animals doing now?
Lingering injuries continue to plague some injured species while others are fully recovered.  See the Status of Injured Resources section of this web site.

And then, there’s this:

Visitors today experience the spectacular scenery and wildlife of Prince William Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska. However, one of the most stunning revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring over the last ten years is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.

This was not expected at the time of the spill or even ten years later. In 1999, beaches in the sound appeared clean on the surface. Some subsurface oil had been reported in a few places, but it was expected to decrease over time and most importantly, to have lost its toxicity due to weathering. A few species were not recovering at the expected rate in some areas, but continuing exposure to oil was not suspected as the primary cause.

Oil from the <em>Exxon Valdez</em> persists in a shallow pit dug on a beach in Prince Willaim Sound, summer 2004.In 2001, researchers at the Auke Bay Laboratories, NOAA Fisheries, conducted a survey of the mid-to-upper intertidal in areas of the sound that were heavily or moderately oiled in 1989. Researchers dug over 9,000 pits, at 91 sites, over a 95-day field season. Over half the sites were contaminated with Exxon Valdez oil. Oil was found at different levels of intensity from light sheening; to oil droplets; to heavy oil where the pit would literally fill with oil. They estimated that approximately 16,000 gallons (60,000 liters), of oil remained. The survey also showed a trend of an increasing number of oiled pits as they surveyed lower into the intertidal zone, indicating that there was more oil to be found lower down the beach. In 2003, additional surveys determined that while the majority of subsurface oil was in the mid-intertidal, a significant amount was also in the lower intertidal. The revised estimate of oil was now more than 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters). Additional surveys outside Prince William Sound have documented lingering oil also on the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai coast, over 450 miles away.


High Octane Katrina

April 30, 2010

I’m sure I’m not saying anything novel here, but this massive oil spill in New Orleans is a big fucking deal. Given Obama’s slow response time, it well could’ve been, and maybe still well could be, Obama’s Katrina. Except for one, minor, thing.


Are Climate Bats More Like Fruit Bats or Vampire Bats?

January 28, 2010

Friend and colleague Tom Yulsman has a nice post over at the Center for Environmental Journalism on the recent Chiroptera kerfuffle. Meanwhile, friend and colleague Roger Pielke Jr. has several — lots and lots of — nice posts over on his blog. Oh, yeah, and the London Times has an article, as does Der Spiegel.

I’ve basically been watching this issue unfold from afar, partly because I mentioned it a while back and someone in the comments said that I was late to the game (which I think I wasn’t) and also because I think it probably safe to say that Roger’s on top of it.

Even still, I may be piping in soon. Depends if I can get this grant application finished before the Feb 1 deadline. Meanwhile, read the above posts and catch up on the hurricane discussion.

Stay tuned, same bat time, same bat channel.



January 13, 2010

There’s really very little appropriate to say at times like these. The pictures and stories are horrifying. The destruction is unimaginable. The pain and suffering, really, cannot possibly be comprehended. To think of the loss of just one person I care about, not to mention those I haven’t even thought to care about… it boggles the mind. Far easier to bury my nose in my classes and forget that it has happened. Except that in many of my classes, I will be shepherding my students through readings in which the benefits and beauty of nature are extolled.

Haiti is a reminder — as there are many unfortunate reminders — that nature is not quite the pleasant nurturer as it is often made out to be.

When I first began this blog, not so long ago, I figured that I could catalog the horrors of nature and point this out. To do so in the face of this devastation, however, seems somehow sick and wrong. It’s so painfully obvious how terrible this is, it is hard to comprehend how one could need reminding of it. Sure, nature has its moments of beauty, and it offers immense value to humanity that has long gone unappreciated… but it is easy to forget, from the comfort of our living rooms, just how devastating nature can be.

My thoughts and best wishes are with those throughout the country.


Two Images

November 12, 2009

I had occasion this morning to have breakfast with Bron Taylor (Religious Studies, University of Florida), author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. As one might expect, the question about environmentalism as a religion (here and here) came up. I asked specifically whether we can’t distinguish between presumed appeals to the supernatural and actual appeals to the supernatural — in other words, whether it is important to distinguish between those who make explicit (or “perceived”) appeals to supernatural forces, and those who, in claiming to be making naturalistic appeals, nevertheless make supernatural appeals. (I might believe that my dead cousin Charlie is all around me, for instance, and in believing this, believe myself to hold a naturalistic view. Charlie’s spirit is just there, a part of nature. But my holding this naturalistic belief about Charlie isn’t what establishes my appeal as supernatural. My appeal is supernatural even though I believe it to be natural. There ain’t no way to establish using naturalistic methodology whether Charlie is or isn’t all around.) Unfortunately, our eggs came too early and I wasn’t able to get an answer. Maybe I’ll be able to get something out of him tonight over beers.

As breakfast continued, we got on the topic of environmental roadshows, and Bron noted that one common method of inspiring people to take interest in environmental issues is by showing before and after photos. I’m sure you’re familiar with the technique, but you can see instances of it here (or by going to a roadshow). Sometimes they don’t employ a before-and-after format, but just show how scarred the earth can be. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what the earth would be like without the scar. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate desecration.

This technique is a political reality. It’s a very common way of demonstrating the desecration of nature; and it is supposed to get people to recognize, or appreciate, or find value in, untrammeled nature. But I think there’s a lot more going on in these sorts of events than simply identifying the better and worse states of nature. What these before-and-after pictures do is tweak our reactive attitudes, our quasi-natural reactions to incidents that we take to have certain causes. (‘Reactive attitudes’ are generally used differently in philosophy, but I think they play an important role here insofar as they point us to incidents in which a supposedly “free will” has intervened.)

To see this, now look at the following photographs: herehere, and here. Depending on your view about global climate change, your attitude about the desecration of nature may change. That is, you may not feel the kind of disapprobation that you feel when you look at pictures of clearcuts; or you may just see the melting of the glaciers as a natural process.

Consider further that if I show you pictures of this devastation or this devastation, it seems reasonable that you won’t feel the same level of disapprobation. You may feel sadness, or despair, or pity; but these are likely not identical with the attitudes that you might have if these were the results of multiple intermingling wills.

Also interesting is that if I show you an image of a beautiful building — say, the Helix Hotel — you may think very positively about this construction, even though from one perspective it rests on desecrated soil.

What this points to, at least for me, is not so much the view that one natural condition is preferable to another condition of the world, but rather that when we are culpable for bringing about a bad state of affairs, this is where are moral disapprobation gets tweaked.


That Sinking Feeling

November 11, 2009

Carlsbad, NM evidently faces a mighty difficult challenge in the years ahead. A massive sinkhole threatens to gobble up the town. MSNBC also has the scoop.

The cause of the sinkhole? Decades of oil and gas extraction in the region.

To accomplish the herculean task of positioning a sinkhole smack in the middle of a populated area, ambitious extractors “pumped fresh water into a salt layer more than 400 feet below the surface and extracted several million barrels of brine to help with drilling.” How thoughtful. Fortunately, the local government has set up alarms to notify residents if the cavern collapses.

If it collapses, the unnatural cavern is likely to take with it a church, a highway, several businesses and a trailer park. Massive fissures currently cleave through town, and one business owner has said that structural cracks have even formed in his store.

“It would be like a bomb going off in the middle of town,” said Jim Griswold, a hydrologist with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division. The problem is so severe that the Eddy County Commission declared a state of emergency last Thursday, and they hope that state and federal funds will arrive in time to fill the cavern before it collapses.

Wanna know more about best management practices for oil and gas extraction in your area? My colleagues at the Natural Resources Law Center have pulled together a phenomenal database on Intermountain Oil and Gas Drilling.


8.3 Magnitude Rumbler

September 29, 2009

Big one in Samoa.  Early reports from the NY Times and Huffington Post (with video from MSNBC).

Update: video and photos of the devastation.