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Rivers Of Oil And The Limits Of Control

Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman inspects oil washed in with the tide on a beach at the mouth of the Mississippi River. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

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John Moore/Getty Images

Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman inspects oil washed in with the tide on a beach at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

John Moore/Getty Images

A mile is a long way down and a month is a long time to wait.

How is it that the story of the Deepwater Horizon still dominates the headlines?  How can a river of petrochemical ooze still rocket from that fire hose at the seafloor, unchecked even a month after the initial explosion and sinking of the rig?  How is it that this problem remains unsolved?

Before we rush to answer that question with finger pointing at BP engineers, Big Oil or failed government oversight, we need to step back — way back — and see the disaster in the gulf for what it is and what it means broadly for a human culture pumped high on technological and scientific magic.

The Deepwater Horizon’s drill had to dive through 4,132 feet of water before it hit sea floor. How deep is that? The US Navy Seawolf class of nuclear submarines can take no more than 2,300 feet of water before they’re crushed like a tin can.

Too deep for human intervention, the Deepwater Horizon site must be serviced by remote control robots. It is nothing less than a technological marvel that we have learned to extract energy resources on an industrial scale in this kind of environment.

In many ways, this was the story of the last century — an age of miracles, when we came to expect that technology would, in the end, always save us.

But what we do not yet grasp is the limits of these technologies or the ever-expanding consequences of their failure.  Our machines will not always be able to get us out of the mess they get us into.  The oil still billows into the gulf, because we are working at the hairy edge of what is possible.  As vast underwater plumes of brown tarry goo begin circulating around the gulf, we are about to see the real meaning of technology’s unintended consequences.

This is likely a lesson that will define our age: From the collapse of the world’s fisheries to the alteration the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, we are stacking up these lessons of “unintended consequences”.

In this century, we will be forced to recognize the limits of technology, the limits of control.  Science and technology let us build a complex global culture of undreamt possibilities.  Now we must rise to the occasion and face the global consequences of that kind of reach.

But there is a wisdom in limits. It is the basis for all life and its evolved interactions.  There is a broad and vital lesson to be drawn from 29 days of uninterrupted technological failure in the gulf.

It took just a few decades last century to build the fossil fuel driven society of miracles we now inhabit.  It was a wild, heady ride that allowed us to ignore the reality, for a while, that we live on a finite tightly coupled planet.

Now, quickly, we must learn the lesson of limits – limits in resources, limits in the capacities of technologies.  We must become smarter about consequences in the new culture we are forced to build.  We need to become more humble in the face of what our science and technology have also shown us to be true – we are in and of the world and so we cannot afford to fail.