Saturday, May 29, 2010

Experiential learning

New York Times.
In the beginning of May, a few weeks after the rig explosion, the Pew Research Center asked 994 Americans about the oil spill: 55 percent saw it as a major environmental disaster, and 37 percent as a serious problem. But at that time, at least, 51 percent also believed that efforts to prevent the spill from spreading would be successful. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil later, federal officials last week released a new estimate of the spill — 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day — establishing it as the largest in American history. As Richard Feynman, the physicist, once observed, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Sometimes ingenuity may not help us.

Indeed, think of all the planes grounded for nearly a week in northern Europe last month, as a volcano poured ash in the atmosphere. There was no technological fix, and many passengers couldn’t believe it. Said Mr. Kohut, of Pew Research, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.’ ”

The BP Spill is an example of what Thomas Homer-Dixon termed the ingenuity gap. Modernity sells us the myth that we can solve any problem we have or create with technology. Informed by our social pathology promoting our dominion over nature and our perpetual techno-fetishism, we attempt to negotiate with the Earth in exchange for the eco-credit the allows us to reproduce that society. Deforestation? OK, we'll leave some standing, and replant a few more. Chemical plant? We'll draw up a few rules that'll let the plant operate on the condition that we let them say they're bad the kill a village. Nuclear power? Sure, just promise to bury the waste where no one lives and have a switch that lets you turn it off. Massifs of oil, under great pressure, beneath 20 000 feet of seawater and mud? Make sure you put the little yellow metal box on top of the hole.

Ultimately, this mindset and all that flows from it has let us build our civilisation on toxins. We are the only one in history to do this. And now we're paying for it.


Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patters of the world in its becoming. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
- from The Road (Cormac McCarthy:286-287)

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