Newsweek: Catastrophic Memory Loss

Some great perspective from a dying brother in the print world.

The legacy of environmental catastrophes is, instead, a hybrid of amnesia and habituation. That is, the public forgets more quickly now than in the past, and understands that no source of energy is risk-free. Coal kills miners, including the 25 in West Virginia last month. Natural-gas pipelines sometimes explode and occasionally kill, as in a 2000 accident that left 12 people dead in New Mexico. Nuclear reactors, despite industry assurances, will never be risk-free; no technology is. The “risks” of renewables such as wind and solar are higher energy prices, which to many people are less acceptable than the environmental and human costs of fossil fuel. “There has been a generational change in risk tolerance,” says engineering professor Henry Petroski of Duke University, author of the 2010 book The Essential Engineer. “The public has become more familiar with the concept of risk, and the fact that it is ubiquitous. The bumper sticker S–T HAPPENS used to be a fringe phenomenon, but now it’s mainstream: people have become resigned to risk.”

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2 Responses to Newsweek: Catastrophic Memory Loss

  1. For the sake of completeness: Wind power may not have a risk of big one time disaster, but they are often a source of continuous or continual minor disturbances, e.g. by killing birds.

    While, on the balance, wind power is one of the more environmentally friendly sources of energy, it demonstrates a general tendency to over-focus on big disasters and not overall damage caused. A gigantic disaster like Chernobyl gets the publics attention in a way that ongoing damages do not—yet, these often do far more damage when it comes to the long-term averages. In the same way, many are horrified of flying, but think nothing of travelling by car: The odd aircraft disaster receives international fame; the thousands of car accidents seldom move beyond a few lines hidden deep in a newspaper.

    It should further be noted that previous generations lived with a far higher risk of “major shit happening” that we do today: A failed harvest, the plague, war, … Even a relatively knife-cut could lead to death, appendicitis was as good as a death sentence, a broken limb could lead to a life as a cripple, etc. Today’s population is, in fact, coping with far less risk than was the historical norm.

    Environmental disasters, specifically, were hardly on their mind; however, they too happened—just not in the spectacular fashion of some of the modern.

    • T. B. King says:

      Just a short reply about dead birds in wind power. Just like George Will claimed erroneously this week, that is a simplistic exaggeration. Hundreds of thousands of sea birds have died as a result of oil spills in the last decade alone. Compare that with a dozen or so birds hit by turbines. I’ll dig up the relevant stats after I get off work. But for quick reference they are on the Fact Check section of the ABC Roundtable discussion with George Will and Bill Maher fromthis past weekend.

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