David Brooks in this morning’s New York Times touches on a few of the issues we’ve been talking about on this blog with relation to the Gulf oil spill – particularly the impossibility of completely eradicating risk from inherently dangerous, complex activities such as deepwater offshore drilling.
It is very, very encouraging to see this discussion enter the mainstream media, which for too long in this crisis has focused on covering the (admittedly fascinating) Apollo 13-like engineering drama beneath the sea and passing along BP’s corporate spin without challenge.
What’s great about Brooks’ piece is that he reminds us that this catastrophe is about much more than just oil drilling. We do all sorts of complex things in our society that put us one series of cascading errors away from ruin.
What’s missing, though, is an acknowledgment that there may be times when we as a society simply opt to forego unnecessary risks – to do more than, as Brooks suggests, help “people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity” and “improve the choice architecture.” That’s particularly true when the impact of catastrophe will be severe, broad in scale, and impossible to fully remediate, as appears to be the case with the Gulf spill.
Can we do without deep offshore drilling? That’s the question that Brooks never poses. But it’s the one that Americans should be asking. If we add in the risk of catastrophic spills to the many other consequences of our dependence on oil – and make an effort to fully tap the potential for alternatives (including alternative ways of traveling from place to place) – the answer may very well be yes.