In late summer of 2002 I moved to St. Petersburg, Russia with several friends. Shortly after we arrived, some area on the edge of the city caught on fire, and it quickly grew out of control. Day after day, the fire consumed one city block after another, filling the air with noxious smoke.
At first we assumed a city fire would be contained within a day or two, and since it was out in the suburbs it couldn’t possibly come close enough to threaten us – but we were wrong. As the fire moved closer and closer to our neighborhood, we began to fear that it might actually put our apartment in danger. Although we never needed to evacuate, the smoke got so bad towards the end that it burned our eyes and kept us awake at night coughing.
The reason the situation got so out of control is that, when the fire first began to burn, no one came to put it out, and the fire that could have been contained with minimal damage was allowed to consume entire neighborhoods. “Why on earth didn’t anyone put out a structure fire?” you might ask. “Doesn’t Russia have firefighters?” Well, as it turns out, Russia has plenty of firefighters, but they don’t go to work putting out fires until they receive orders from their superiors.
So why didn’t these Russian firefighters receive orders to put out the fire? The reason was that no one was very clear on who was responsible for dealing with the fire, since it started in an ambiguous location. The city of St. Petersburg thought the fire was a suburban issue and that the county government should be responsible, but the county government thought it was close enough to the city that the city government should be responsible, and when neither side won that argument they both tried to pass the buck on to the regional government, who said “nuh uh” and passed the buck back to the locals. Meanwhile, building after building went up in flames, causing much heartbreak and phenomenal amounts of property damage.
Of course, from my perspective at the time, I thought this turn of events was just insane, and I attributed it to cultural brain damage. As Americans, we are used to a culture in which disasters are attended to immediately and with alacrity, and “politics” doesn’t usually creep in until after the dust settles. (Right?!)
With a little perspective, I now understand this situation was born from a tragic pragmatism: if you only put out the fires you know you’ll be paid to put out, then there will always be backup money to replace fire gear, maintain equipment, and so on. You might not put out every fire, but you’ll at least continue to have a fire department that can put out some fires. If you rush out the door to put out fires you will not be paid to put out, then you’ll wear out your fire gear, destroy your equipment, and your fire department will cease to exist. Then in the future, zero fires will be put out instead of just some fires.
Current events with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico remind me a great deal of my Russian fire story. As big government and big business drag their feet, crude oil has been spewing into the ocean for 25 days, at the rate of 200,000 gallons of oil a day. That’s right, folks, by the end of today 5 million gallons of oil will have leaked into the Gulf.
In contrast to my story, responsibility for this mess is clear: this was BP’s disaster and BP should obviously make reparations. Ideally, assuming they were a responsible company, BP would have had a contingency plan in place for addressing every possible accident in a timely and intelligent way. However, that appears not to be the case, and I think that was abundantly clear just about…oh, three weeks ago…
So now I am wondering, how much longer is the government going to wait while BP demonstrates their incompetence? Five more days? Great, that’s just another MILLION gallons of oil in the ocean. Ten more days? Make it two million more. Are we really fine with letting habitats be destroyed, industries bankrupted, just on principle because this shouldn’t be the government’s problem? (And could it really be true that the US government doesn’t have the leverage to make BP pick up the tab when all is said and done?)
Today I Googled the phrase “gulf oil spill response”, hoping my cynical assumptions of inaction were wrong, and that I would see several stories about the ingenious solutions being devised by the Army Corps of Engineers, the tireless clean up efforts by the National Guard.
However, I did see a few interesting pages ranking: one page posted by the EPA, letting us know that recent environmental samples show us everything is normal, as well as a news story describing how the state of Louisiana was training prisoners to help with the response. That’s right, Louisiana state prison inmates, known the world over for their mad engineering skills. I’m so glad we’re setting the best and the brightest to the task.
The irony here is that, motivated by the paralyzing fear of doing something (gasp) “socialist”, the American government is responding with as much resourcefulness as you’d expect from a post-Communist dystopia.
Thankfully, the United States is not in the position that Russia was in circa 2002, and we can afford to attend to our disasters without first checking to see where the money will come from. If we can afford to spend $82 million dollars per day to escalate the war in Afghanistan, if we can send space probes to study the surface conditions of Saturn and its moons, then I think we can throw down some clams and figure out a way to stop an oil spill from gushing into the ocean at the rate of 200,000 gallons a day.
And if we can’t, then I have to ask, what is going on here? If we, too, have to fret over resources and pick our battles, then why do we only want to tackle the problems we think we can solve with guns? And why don’t we focus our resources on maintaining Earth as a livable planet before we start worrying about what’s happening on other planets?
Deepwater Horizon Photo Credit: ChvyGrl on Flickr
Screenshot from EPA Website (click to enlarge):