Matt Ridley

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When news came on April 21 that ‘s drilling rig had exploded — killing eleven, sinking the rig, and leaving an open oil well gushing a mile down on the ocean floor — my first thought was, What if they can’t plug that thing? I’m still wondering. So far we’ve seen no evidence that they can. One can still hope, but hey: it’s been more than a month. Maybe plugging this thing is kinda like plugging a volcano.

My next thought was, Can the companies involved survive? The environmental impact would surely exceed that of any filed statement’s scenarios. Shoreline habitats, food sources, ways of life and indusrtries that depend on clean gulf coasts and waters would be damaged or destroyed for unknown lengths of time, and across a wide area. All the states adjoining the Gulf of Mexico, including those of Mexico itself, might be affected. So might islands and coasts elsewhere. (Follow the oil’s spread here.) The liabilities here can easily exceed the worth of the liable companies, or their abilities to pay.

Much blaming is going on, of course. Yesterday I heard Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana come down on both BP and the federal government. Those parties have also heaped blame on others. None of it helps. Could be nothing will help, until the well gets plugged, or upward pressure from the oil reservoir drops far enough to make containment possible. [Later… perhaps with the help of a relief well.]

How big is the reservoir here? We knew how much oil the Exxon Valdez carried. In this case, however, I haven’t heard an answer. Maybe one of the rest of ya’ll can find those figures, if they’re available. I’m guessing, from the pressure involved, that it’s large enough to FUBAR the whole Gulf, and then some, for years.

It might help to think of fossil fuel extraction as grave robbing, because that’s what it is. Most of the energy that lights our homes and keeps our computers humming comes directly from dead plants and animals. These are in great supply. In fact, they are more than sufficient to keep us civilized, if your time horizon is human rather than geological. Most humans don’t care about futures beyond those of their grandchildren. Geology, however, is much more patient. You need geology to make oil and coal. And for that geology takes millions of years.

This means, of course, that we will run out of the stuff if we keep extracting and burning it at current rates. But “we” is the wrong pronoun here. The right one is “they.” Because we’ll be dead by then, and so will our grandchildren. It’s an open question whether “they” will be equal to the problems we’ve caused for them.

No species lasts forever. All do what they’re best at, naturally. It’s hard to deny that what we’re best at are at least these three things:

  1. Increasing our numbers
  2. Spreading all over the place
  3. Using up resources — especially those that take millions of years to make and burn up in  an instant.

This last weekend the Wall Street Journal ran Humans: Why They Triumphed, by Matt Ridley. Its closing paragraphs:

There’s a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events. Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters.

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex. And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

Why “triumphed?” Who lost? And what is this dominion of ours, over which we now rule? At what costs, perhaps fatal, do we maintain it?

Etched on the front of the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming, is a large inscription that reads, STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON NOT GIVEN. This contributed the title to John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, which, among other things, described exactly what would happen to New Orleans should a levee break, long before the resulting flood actually happened.

I suppose all species are arrogant winners. Ours, however, is uniquely equipped to overcome that natural insanity. Whether we will or not, however, is an open question. My bet, not that I shall ever collect on it, is that we are even more Ozymandian than Shelley imagined — whether the well gets capped or not.

Bonus blog.

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