Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989

A spring storm spread the Exxon Valdez oil all over Prince William Sound, but it was human hands that set the spill in motion.  Captain Eastwood was derelict in his duties, Exxon allowed him to continue to sail and cut costs on its ships by reducing staff, government funding cuts reduced oversight of the shipping channels.  These conditions, in turn, would not have been tolerated if the company and government had exercised more oversight of an activity that carried inherent risks — shipping oil in single-hull tankers in pristine environments.  Lack of oversight is not just a question of money, although sufficient funds are critical.  Just as critical is the need to avoid complacency.  Even though years had passed without a significant oil spill from the Valdez terminal, a spill was always possible, perhaps probable.

The failure here is primarily one of imagination.  We need to imagine that disasters will occur in order to be prepared to prevent them.  Once we stop imagining the disaster, we become complacent, we allow safety systems to become inoperable or obsolete, we tolerate all sorts of shortcomings in the technology and people meant to prevent the disaster.  This is not to suggest that paranoids, who see dangers everywhere, should be appointed as guardians of environmental regulatory agencies, although a few paranoids in key spots might be useful.  Rather, it suggests that we all remain vigilant and that we actively resist those who refuse to acknowledge how vulnerable our world and we are.

Most vulnerable in Prince William Sound were the Chugach natives who were directly dependent on the environment, especially the water and marine resources, for their livelihood.  Their health was threatened, like everyone else who breathed in the fumes or ate food contaminated by the oil.  But their culture was also threatened, with the loss of subsistence fishing, loss of opportunities to train the young on how to use the natural resources, and loss of meaning for their daily lives.   Other native cultures that are found on islands throughout the world face similar threats to their environment and culture because of global warming.  When we hear of such threats we should remember the Chugach of Prince William Sound and what they endured because of the Exxon Valdez  oil spill.


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