On extreme energy, risk, and culture

by Dan Vermeer, Executive Director of EDGE

One of the more frustrating aspects of working the sustainability field is that every problem is mind-bogglingly complex, and can be framed at multiple levels.  Take, for example, the heated debates and accusations about the causes and consequences of the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some commentators argue that the explosion was the result of shoddy engineering, reckless decisions, or mismanagement from multiple contractors involved with the well’s operations.  They stress that operating deep sea wells are generally safe, and that the Macondo disaster was an anomaly that should have been avoided, and can be fixed.

Others point out that the lack of proper regulation and/or effective enforcement allowed the for breakdowns and shortcuts that ultimately resulted in an accident.  This diagnosis suggests a deeper, systemic problem, and calls mostly for regulatory reform.

Another strand of the conversation points to the fact that we are moving into an era of “extreme energy,”  where conventional and easy-to-reach energy sources are largely depleted, forcing exploitation of inherently riskier sources.  Indeed, our energy system is being transformed by our increasing reliance on deep sea drilling for oil, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and a host of other unconventional sources – and these will inevitably make accidents like Macondo more likely.

The cost of risk

Each of these interpretations holds a kernel of truth, but none seems to address the most fundamental question – why are we taking these risks in the first place?  Not only in the energy arena, but also on Wall Street and the Pentagon, we seem to be embracing increasingly risky choices, where the consequences of failure are very costly, in lives as well as dollars.

In Naomi Klein’s compelling TED talk, she skillfully pulls back the layers of these arguments to reveal the fundamental cultural narratives that underlie many of our most vexing challenges.  Especially in America, we remain in the grip of powerful narratives about the origin of our country and the sources of our prosperity.  We believe that we live in a world with endless frontiers and boundless resources.  We have confidence that our uniquely American mixture of God-given natural assets, courage, and ingenuity are able to overcome any perceived limits.  We are proud of the fact that we have subdued nature to enrich our lives, and are certain that this process can go on infinitely.  This is our manifest destiny.

This confidence leads us to hurtle into ever-greater risks to secure our energy resources, meet our consumption needs, and support our way of life.  Many players in our society are willing to raise the stakes because the potential rewards are so great – whether it is chasing an economic bubble, defeating terrorism, or opening up a new energy source.  And the costs of failure are usually not sustained by those players, but are distributed widely across society.  When rewards are potentially high and consequences for failure proportionally low, the risk taker can’t pass up the odds.

Faith beginning to falter

However, this faith in infinite possibility may be beginning to falter, according to Klein.  Despite frenzied chants for war, the boom and bust of global markets, and the calls for “drill baby drill,” Klein argues that there is a creeping anxiety in our society generated by the dawning awareness of our limits.  We are at war with ourselves about whether we should double down on our traditional American virtues of conquering nature and creating new technology, or begin to face the cold hard facts that we live on a finite planet.  This is not only an intellectual or strategic challenge, but cuts to the heart of our values and identity.  This questions are profound, and the stakes could not be higher.

As Klein notes, Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” explains how and why societies choose to succeed or fail.  In the many historical cases of collapse described by Diamond, some societies facing resource or environmental issues responded creatively to meet their challenges while others rigidly clung to their traditional way of life.  These cultural shifts are messy, volatile, and hard to predict – but a society’s unwillingness or inability to imagine new ways of life almost certainly leads to failure.  As Klein puts it, “This is how civilizations commit suicide, by slamming their foot on the accelerator at the exact moment when they should be putting on the brake.”

Are the new forms of energy – from shale gas and oil to deep sea drilling to mega-strip mining – the latest shining examples of American ingenuity?  We certainly have beaten the Malthusian odds over and over again over the last couple centuries.  Or are they dark omens of a society that deludes itself into over-confidence that any limit is temporary, that new technologies will save us, and that the force of will can push back any barriers forever?

New stories needed

Klein argues that we need new stories about nature, limits, prosperity, and humility.  We need new values rooted in the precautionary principle, which states that when human health and the environment are at risk, and the potential damage is irreversible, we cannot afford to wait for perfect scientific certainty and should err on side of caution.  And finally, we need a critical consciousness about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world.  Just because a story comforts us, or resonates with our self-image does not mean that it is true or healthy.  Where will those new stories come from, and who will tell them?

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