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Blog - Worried about the environment You're seeing things

This page is a blog article in progress, written by David Tweed. To discuss this article while it’s being written, visit the Azimuth Forum.

Worried about the environment? You’re seeing things!

This blog post is going to be slightly different to more “hard-science” posts and is going to list some observations and speculate on how they might be indicative of a more general phenomenon. It is as much a set of questions as actual answers. (Hey, count yourselves lucky this ain’t a video blog, otherwise you’d have a ton of “eh”s and “so, as I was saying”s to filter out as well.)

Over the past couple of years there have been several large environmental events. Some of these have been “TV news friendly”, others much less so.

There was the Deepwater Horizon explosion and associated leaking well-head/pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. Firstly, let me note that there were workers on the rig who were killed by the initial explosion for whom this was the ultimate tragedy, but we’re considering here the degree of seriousness of the later environmental effects here.

To judge from internet postings and “vox pop’s” in the media even people who generally pour scorn on “environmentalists” suggesting very extreme reactions (such as deploying nuclear weapons to melt enough of the oceanbed to completely seal of the oil reservoir). What factor explains this? I think one of the big contributions was the presence of several “live” camera internet-feeds of the mouth of the leaking borehole. It had a very seductive effect on many people who seemed to form judgements about the scale of the problem based upon watching it. Now, here’s a confession: I’ve got no idea what a bad leak of oil on the seabed looks like compared to a minor leak of oil. Even if there’s very clearly oil filling the screen, what does that mean in the context of a leak into an ocean? (Many underground oil reservoirs naturally leak at a level which is absorbed by the environment.) My hypothesis is that human beings have evolved to attach a greater weight to “evidence” we can actually see compared to other forms of evidence. Likewise, note how eager people are to compare quantities to visual quantities such as “the area of Wales”. In any given context I don’t know whether an area the size of Wales is big or small, but as soon as it’s mentioned I picture a land of mountains and valleys stretching away as far as the eye can see in all directions. The picture is large, so my mind is predisposed the belief that whatever was compared to it must be big.

At this point a very thorny issue arises: there is an actual environmental impact of an event (which gets less completely known by human beings the more complicated the event gets) and any individual’s considered opinion of what the environmental impact is. Clearly, one never thinks one’s current view on a topic is inaccurate (otherwise you would already have changed it, right?), but trying to look at the psychological evolution of these things requires stepping back and considering whether the “inputs” that led to that belief are both accurate and representative.

There were of course other potential reasons why this may have caught the public’s attention and concern:

  • This was an unsolved problem being played out in semi-public, with both repeated failures (to rail against) and new technological efforts (to explain, with lots of whizzy graphics).

  • This was happening in America, which does tend to be heavily overly reported in world news.

There was the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant “breakdown” in Japan from April 2011 onwards. Again, there have been some deaths amongst actual plant personnel, but the wider environmental impact is being considered here.

Equally the lack of “visuals” may not have been the only reason for the lack of media action:

  • This was happening in Japan, which has arguably less news pull than America, home of CNN, Fox, major internet news sites, etc.

  • Similarly although there were mistakes and misunderstandings, they took place both less publicly and with less media pick-up.

On a lesser note, the availability of the …

Of course, these are “disasters on man-made structures”, rather than the more gradual changes in temperature, precipitation patterns and levels, animal and plant health and biodiversity, etc.

As a side note, there have been several mentions of the blog of gardening as an activity which gives a better sense of the world and your part in it. Gardening also involves looking and watching, although it also involves the arguably stronger senses of touch, smell and “physical exertion”.

And I don’t mean a deluge of “March of the Penguins”-style films. (Apart from anything else such a process would be bottlenecked on the availability of Morgan Freeman for voice-overs, so perfecting human cloning is a precursor to going down this route…) But maybe there are some effects which can be “seen”, e.g., in many places aquifers are being drained not just faster than they can be replenished but at rates giving complete depletion in the near future (e.g. the Yemen is depleting the aquifers in the Sana’a Basin with one prediction for complete depletion in 2017, with other aquifers in the region depleting at various times in the following 30 years). Maybe some way could be found to internet-televise the depletion of the aquifer in real-time? Or maybe there is another image-producing approach.

Equally it doesn’t need to be high-tech: in many flood-prone parts of the world it is common to have markers of walls and monuments to show how high flood water has reached in the past. Maybe this can be inverted, and semi-decorative markers recording that “there was plant X here in 2011” can be put down in order that people in 5-10 years time might appreciate that there isn’t any such plants here any more.