Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Oil Spills and Fires of Kuwait, 1991

Oil is high stakes.  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991 and took control of vast oil fields, it was inevitable that the United States and other oil-dependent countries would respond.  Before any invasion, there was a robust debate about the possible environmental effects that would result if Kuwait’s oil fields were set ablaze by Hussein.  Opinions ranged from a nuclear winter to minor impacts.  That debate was not as robust as it could have been because the American administration, under President Bush the elder, stifled government experts from participating and withheld information.  This suppression of information in the service of a political goal — to deflect criticism of the impending war’s effect on the environment — is not very different from a private company’s suppression of information in service of an economic goal, as we saw in Minamata.  Yet it is more disturbing.  For we rely on government to inform us about threats and risks, whether environmental or other, and to insure that people that can harm us do not.  If the government cannot be trusted with providing full and accurate information about the things that threaten us and our environment, then citizens rightly, but disturbingly, will lose faith in that government.  In Seveso, Italy we saw that vigilantism can follow a lack of trust in the government. 

  Both the American and Kuwaiti governments could be counted on to address the burning oil wells.  There was so much potential revenue in getting the oil wells capped and back into production that the cost of capping the wells was not an issue.  Personnel and equipment from all over the world were brought into Kuwait to fight the fires, and the fires were put out much quicker than anticipated, reducing the long-term threats to the people of Kuwait. In contrast to other disaster sites, the weather in Kuwait helped reduce risks when the wind blew away some of the smoke and soot from the most populated areas for part of the time.  Nevertheless, the people of Kuwait had to endure choking air and oil everywhere.   When breathing air equates to smoking 250 cigarettes a day, only die-hard smokers take comfort.

The cause of the risks attributed to the soot and smoke was clear.  Unlike the other environmental disasters we have witnessed, what happened in Kuwait was intentional.  The oil was intentionally spilled into the Gulf and the oil wells were deliberately set on fire.  Hussein deservedly received the blame for the risks of those who had to inhale the toxic fumes.  Yet other intentional behavior deepened the risks.  The use of depleted uranium weaponry by American and British military put their own soldiers, as well as the people of Kuwait and Iraqi, at risk.  Soldiers reasonably expected to face crippling injuries and death from facing opposing troops and weaponry.  They did not expect to be exposed to toxic substances from their own government.   Despite clichés about military toughness, soldiers in Kuwait were as vulnerable to the risks of environmental contamination as other populations we have encountered in these stories.  

The children of Iraq who, without warning, played around DU weapons were even more vulnerable.  Intentional bombing of utilities and infrastructure hindered Hussein’s military power they also caused other health effects and put civilians a risk.           

During wartime as during other environmental disasters our vulnerability is most exposed.  While it may be easy for some to say that war is hell and some health and environmental  consequences are unavoidable, it is also easy for others to say that war is intentional and those who conduct it are responsible for the consequences.   We are all vulnerable on this earth, and we need to watch out for each other.


table of contentsContents.html