Saturday, May 29, 2010

Lost Leaders

[Update June 14: It is becoming apparent to all good and knowledgeable people that the well bore structure is compromised "down-hole" (or, as I put it here earlier, "there is no oil well—just a large, untidy hole in the sea bottom with hydrocarbons spewing out of it."]

It is embarrassing to be lost. It is even more embarrassing for a leader to be lost. And what's really really embarrassing to all concerned is when national and transnational corporate leaders attempt to tackle a major disaster and are found out to have been issuing marching orders based on the wrong map. Everyone then executes a routine of turning toward each other in shock, frowning while shaking their heads slowly from side to side and looking away in disgust. After that, these leaders might as well limit their public pronouncements to the traditional "Milk, milk, lemonade, round the corner fudge is made." Whatever they say, the universal reaction becomes: "What leaders? We don't have any."

Getting lost can be traumatic for the rest of us too. When we suddenly realize that we don't know where we are, urgent neural messages are exchanged between our prefrontal cortex, which struggles to form a coherent picture of what's happening, our amygdala, whose job is to hold on to a sense of where we are, and our hippocampus, which motivates us to get back to a place we know as quickly as we possibly can. This strange bit of internal wiring explains why humans who are only slightly lost tend to trot off in a random direction and promptly become profoundly lost. After these immediate biochemical reactions have run their course, we go through the usual stages of:
  1. denial—"We are not lost! The ski lodge is just over the next ridge, or the next, or the next..."
  2. anger—"We are wasting time! Shut up and keep trotting!"
  3. bargaining—"The map must be wrong; either that or someone has dynamited the giant boulder that should be right there..."
  4. depression—"We'll never get there! We're all going to die out here!" and 
  5. acceptance—"We are not lost; we are right here, wherever it is. We better find some shelter and start a campfire before it gets dark and cold."
Some people don't survive, some do; the difference in outcome turns out to have precious little to do with skill or training, and everything to do with motivation—the desire to survive no matter how much pain and discomfort that involves—and the mental flexibility to adjust one's mental map on the fly to fit the new reality, and to reach stage 5 quickly. Those who go on attempting to operate based on an outdated mental map tend to die in utter bewilderment.

Working with an outdated mental map is a big problem for anyone; for a leader, it may very well spell the end of the position of leadership. After the catastrophe at Chernobyl, the Soviet leaders attempted to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that included a relatively intact and generally serviceable nuclear reactor called "Chernobyl Energy Block No. 4". "The reactor has been shut down and is being cooled," went the official pronouncements from the Kremlin, "we are pumping in water to cool it." After a while it became known that there is no reactor—just a smoldering, molten hole spewing radioactive smoke—and the coolant water, prodigious quantities of which were indeed pumped in and spilled in its general vicinity. It instantly boiled away into radioactive steam (which drifted downwind and eventually rained out, poisoning even more of the land). The rest of it leaked out, forming radioactive settling ponds and threatening to further leak into and poison the river that flows through Kiev. As you might imagine, that little episode turned out to be just a little bit embarrassing. Anyone who could think started to think: "Following these leaders is not conducive to survival. Let's make our own plans." Gorbachev went on with his usual long-winded blah-blahs, but the milk-milk-lemonade routine would have served him just as well.

More recently, we have been exposed to the spectacle of corporate leaders and public officials attempting to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that includes a blown-out but otherwise serviceable deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico variously called "Deepwater Horizon" or "Macondo" or "MC252". A number of unsuccessful attempts have been made to capture the oil and gas that have been escaping from it using at least three different techniques. BP—the well's owner—is an oil company, and so their first reaction was to get and sell that oil no matter what. They tried to fit the well with a "top hat" to get all of the oil, but when their contraption didn't work because it got clogged by methane hydrate crystals they stuck a smaller pipe into the leak, just to get and sell some of the oil, and when that worked it made them happy. But, coming under pressure to do something about all the oil leaking out and poisoning the environment, they finally decided to try shutting down the well by squiring various substances into it. The procedures they've tried, going by idiotic Top Gun names like "junk shot" and "top kill"—have all been to no avail. At some point it becomes clear that there is no oil well—just a large, untidy hole in the sea bottom with hydrocarbons spewing out of it, forming huge surface slicks and underwater plumes of oil that kill all they encounter and eventually wash up on land to continue the damage there, turning the Gulf Coast into a disaster area. Starting in another month or so the toxic soup composed of oily tropical seawater and decomposing coastal vegetation and sea life will be stirred up and driven inland by tropical storms and hurricanes. Gulf Coast oil-grunge will become the de facto new national style: oil-streaked skin and clothing and perhaps a dead pelican for a sunhat.

 When things go horribly wrong, it is natural for us mere mortals to try to obtain a bit of psychological comfort by holding on to familiar images. A person who has totaled his car tends to continue to refer to the twisted wreckage as "my car" instead of "the wreckage of my car." In the case someone's wrecked car, this may be accepted as mere shorthand, but in many other cases this tendency results in people working with an outdated mental map which leads them astray, because the properties of a wreck are quite different from those of an intact object. For example, our lost leaders are continuing to refer to "the financial system" instead of "the wreck of the financial system." If they had the flexibility to make that mental switch, perhaps they wouldn't insist on continuing to pump in more and more public debt, only to watch it spew out again through a tangle of broken pipes so horrific that it defies all understanding, with quite a lot of it mysteriously dribbling into the vaults and pockets of bankers and billionaire investors. It will be interesting to watch their attempts at a financial "top kill" or "junk shot" to plug the ensuing geyser of toxic debt.

It is natural for us to naïvely expect our leaders—be they corporate executives or their increasingly decorative and superfluous adjuncts in government—to be our betters, having been picked for leadership positions by their ability to lead us through difficult and unfamiliar terrain. We expect them to have the mental agility and flexibility to be able to revise their mental maps as the circumstances dictate. We don't expect them to be stupid, and are surprised to find that indeed they are. How is that possible? Mental enfeeblement of the ruling class of a collapsing empire is not without precedent: the British imperial experiment was clearly doomed as early as the end of World War I, but it took until well into World War II for this fact to register in the enfeebled brains of the British ruling class. In his 1941 essay England your England, George Orwell offers the following explanation:
...[T]he British ruling class obviously could not admit that their usefulness of was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate...  Clearly there was only one escape for them—into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though it was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on [a]round them."
And so it is now: as the American empire has been crumbling, its leaders, both corporate and corporatist, were being specially selected for being unable to draw their own conclusions based on their own independent reasoning or on the evidence of their own senses, relying instead on "intelligence" that is second-hand and obsolete. These leaders are now attempting to lead us all on a dream-walk to oblivion.

Back in 2008 I published the prediction that while Chernobyl was rather decisive in putting paid to the Soviet scientific/technological program and in dispelling all remaining trust in the Soviet political establishment, the US program of scientific/technological progress and ruthless exploitation of nature is more likely to suffer a death by a thousand cuts. But if one of these cuts hits an artery early on, a thousand cuts would be overkill. Just as with any wreck, the properties of a radically phlebotomized body politic are rather different from those of a healthy one, or even a sick one—not that our lost leaders could notice something like that! They will no doubt go on going on about money and oil (and the predictable lack thereof), but they might as well be telling us about their milk and lemonade, and please hold the drilling mud. How embarrassing!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

An American Chernobyl

[Update June 10: Many people have had this same realization since I published this post. Here is an excellent, detailed summary that details the similarities, with links to resources.]

The drawing of parallels between industrial accidents is a dubious armchair sport, but here the parallels are just piling up and are becoming too hard to ignore:
  • An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spewed radioactive waste across Europe
  • A recent explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform is spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico
These accidents were both quite spectacular. At Chernobyl, the force of the explosion, caused by superheated steam inside the reactor, tossed the 2500-tonne reactor lid 10-14 meters into the air where it twirled like a tossed penny and came to rest back on the wrecked reactor. The cloud of superheated vapor then separated into a large volume of hydrogen gas, which detonated, demolishing the reactor building and adjoining structures. At Deepwater Horizon, a blowout of a recently completed oil well sent an uncontrolled burst of oil and gas, pressurized to over 10,000 psi by the 25000-foot depth of the well, up to the drilling platform, where it detonated, causing a fire. The rig then sank, and came to rest in a heap of wreckage on top of the oil well, which continues to spew at least 200,000 gallons of oil a day. Left unchecked, this would amount to 1.7 million barrels of oil per year, for an indefinite duration. This amount of oil may be enough to kill off or contaminate all marine life within the Gulf of Mexico, to foul the coastline throughout the Gulf and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, through much of the Eastern Seaboard, at least to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and possibly beyond. A few tarballs will probably wash up as far north as Greenland.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused more or less directly by political appointeesm: the people in charge of the reactor control room had no background in nuclear reactor operations or nuclear chemistry, having got their jobs through the Communist Party. They attempted a dangerous experiment, executed it incompetently, and the result was an explosion and a meltdown. The Deepwater Horizon disaster will perhaps be found to have similar causes. BP, which leased and operated Deepwater Horizon, is chaired by one Carl-Henric Svanberg—a man with no experience in the oil industry. The people who serve on the boards of directors of large companies tend to see management as a sort of free-floating skill, unrelated to any specific field or industry, rather similarly to how the Soviet Communist party thought of and tried to use the talents of its cadres. Allegations are already circulating that BP drilled to a depth of 25000 feet while being licensed to drill up to 18000 feet, that safety reviews of technical documents had been bypassed, and that key pieces of safety equipment were not installed in order to contain costs. It will be interesting to see whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like the Chernobyl disaster before it, turns out to be the direct result of management decisions made by technical incompetents.

More importantly, the two disasters are analogous in the unprecedented technical, administrative, and political challenges posed by their remediation. In the case of Chernobyl, the technical difficulty stemmed from the need to handle high level radioactive waste. Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the demolished reactor, sealing it off from the environment. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the technical difficulty lies with stemming a high-pressure flow of oil, most likely mixed with natural gas, gushing from within the burned, tangled wreck of the drilling platform at a depth of 5000 feet. An effort is currently underway to seal the leak by lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel "contraption" onto it from a floating crane and using it to capture and pump out the oil as it leaks out. I think "sarcophagus" sounds better.

The administrative challenge, in the case of Chernobyl, lay in evacuating and resettling large urban and rural populations from areas that were contaminated by the radiation, in preventing contaminated food products from being sold, and in dealing with the medical consequences of the accident, which includes a high incidence of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The effect of the massive oil spill from Deepwater Horizon is likely to cause massive dislocation within coastal communities, depriving them of their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and recreation. Unless the official efforts to aid this population are uncharacteristically prompt and thorough, their problems will bleed into and poison politics.

The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.

Translate "industrial accident" into Russian and back into English, and what you get is "technogenic catastrophe". This term got a lot of use after the Chernobyl disaster. It is rather more descriptive than the rather flaccid English phrase, and it puts the blame where it ultimately comes to rest in any case: with the technology, and the technologists and politicians who push it. Technology that can and sometimes does fail catastrophically, causing unacceptable levels of environmental devastation, is no good, regardless of how economically necessary it happens to be. It must be shut down. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are already hearing that expansion of deep-water drilling is "dead on arrival". This could be the beginning of the end for the huge but dying beast that is the petrochemical industry, or more such accidents may be required for the realization finally to sink in and the cry of "Shut it down!" to be heard.

The energy industry has run out of convenient, high-quality resources to exploit, and is now forced to turn to resources it previously passed over: poor, dirty, difficult, expensive resources such as tar sands, heavy oil, shale, and deep offshore. Under relentless pressure to do more with less, people are likely to try to cut corners wherever possible, and environmental safety is likely to suffer. Before it finally crashes, the huge final effort to wring the last few drops of energy out of a depleted planet will continue to serve up bigger and bigger disasters. Perhaps the gruesome aftermath of this latest accident will cause enough people to proclaim "Enough! Shut it all down!" But if not, there is always the next one.