Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis

Article: Disasters Due to Hubris

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Oil rig explosion, photo by skeeze on Pixabay, \cczero

Before You Read

Discuss the following questions with a partner before you read the article.

  1. Do you know about the disasters of the BP oil spill, Chernobyl, or Hurricane Katrina?
  2. What technological disasters do you know about? They could be spacecraft explosions, oil spills, bridges falling, dams breaking, etc.
  3. Who or what was at fault in these disasters?
  4. What could be done to prevent future disasters?
  5. What are the aftereffects of an oil spill?
  6. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

Vocabulary in Context

Guess the vocabulary in bold using the context.

  1. With demand for oil rising rapidly, especially in the developing nations, the price of oil will soon (that is, at least within the decade) skyrocket, creating famine and scarcity for the world’s poor and a drastic change in the standard of living for the affluent.
  2. But what’s left is the difficult half—the oil that will be expensive, dangerous, and even more ecologically damaging to extract.
  3. One learning from this crisis is that—within a consumer society like ours—“accidents” and environmental devastation are inevitable; they are part of the cost of our lifestyle.
  4. The BP oil spill is only a tiny prelude to what’s coming if our species doesn’t find its appropriate place in the balance of nature.
  5. If a manufacturer disposes its wastes into the nearby river instead of paying for the proper treatment, the cost of waste disposal or treatment has been externalized onto the rest of society.
  6. In this case since neither BP nor any other oil company can afford to pay for the incalculable consequences of such a spill, part of the full cost of deep-water drilling would necessarily include insurance against any accidents.
  7. The amount of pressure exerted by 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet of rock that was forcing the oil out of the well was sufficient to lift six fully-loaded dump trucks straight up into the air, and it was pushing the oil out at about 260 mph.
  8. Hubris seems to keep popping up and inviting us to calculate, if only after the fact, the mathematics of disaster.

Vocabulary Building 

Find the word in the paragraph given. Use the synonyms and definition to help.

  1. P1: inefficient, ineffective, lazy, unskilled (adj.): __________________________________
  2. P1: wealthy (adj.): _____________________________________________________________
  3. P2: forgetfulness (n.): __________________________________________________________
  4. P2: failure to take proper care in doing something (n.): ___________________________
  5. P7: great importance (n.): ______________________________________________________
  6. P7: easily broken or damaged, fragile (adj.): _____________________________________
  7. P7: very complicated or detailed (adj.): _________________________________________
  8. P7: a state of physical balance (n.): _____________________________________________

The Gulf Oil Spill: Beyond Blaming

Adapted from an article by David Hilfiker, \ccbyncsa

The Gulf oil spill is symptomatic of larger issues than greedy oil companies or incompetent government regulatory agencies. The spill provides an opportunity to examine the connections between our affluent lifestyle and the future inevitability of such catastrophes.

Now that the Gulf oil spill has been controlled (if it actually has) and faded into collective amnesia, what have we learned about preventing another such catastrophe? Society has certainly settled on the blame for the spill: BP’s negligence and the failure of government regulation. Without denying their respective responsibilities, finding a couple of institutions on which we can blame misses the point: Such tragedies are inevitable in a society as addicted to oil as ours, in a world of peaking daily oil production, in an age of technological hubris, and in an economic system that virtually requires corporations to shift the cost of their environmental catastrophes onto the public.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have rightly referred to our “addiction” to oil. From transportation to agriculture, from power to plastics, and much more, our standard of living requires massive quantities of cheap oil. But the age of cheap oil is coming to an end.

Oil geologists largely agree that “peak oil”—the point at which we reach the maximum possible daily production—is upon us. With demand for oil rising rapidly, especially in the developing nations, the price of oil will soon (that is, at least within the decade) skyrocket, creating famine and scarcity for the world’s poor and a drastic change in the standard of living for the affluent.

Peak oil doesn’t mean that the world is running out of oil; daily production actually reaches its maximum when about half the world’s remaining reserves are still underground. But what’s left is the difficult half—the oil that will be expensive, dangerous, and even more ecologically damaging to extract. BP’s ultra-deep-water drilling is an example of precisely this issue. In the frantic rush to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” and assure the continuing availability of cheap oil, the pressure for ever-more difficult, ever-more dangerous oil extraction rises. Deep-water drilling is one such extraordinarily difficult process; drilling under arctic waters that are often covered with ice is another. Processing shale or tar sands is environmentally catastrophic. One learning from this crisis is that—within a consumer society like ours—“accidents” and environmental devastation are inevitable; they are part of the cost of our lifestyle.

Partly because of our long history of inventiveness and success, we Americans tend to believe that technological solutions can solve everything from world hunger to global warming: It “always has,” we say. Scientists and engineers, we imagine, will find safe methods of deep-water drilling, environmentally sound processing of oil-rich tar sands, or cheap alternative ways to produce all the energy we “need.”

The environmental problems we now confront, however, are of a different order of magnitude and complexity than anything we’ve known before. Failure, of course, is much more serious and—perhaps more importantly—after-the-fact interventions involve messing with the Earth’s delicate homeostatic mechanisms as never before. We understand only a tiny portion of the Earth’s infinitely intricate balances—developed over billions of years—that sustain life. But we nevertheless consider putting shades into space to block a part of the sun’s rays or seeding the atmosphere with sulfate particles to reduce the sunlight hitting the Earth, confident we can handle whatever complications arise from disrupting nature’s equilibrium. But, unlike in the past, the consequences of technological failure in these areas now threaten civilization. The BP oil spill is only a tiny prelude to what’s coming if our species doesn’t find its appropriate place in the balance of nature. We must learn far more respect for the Earth.

Finally, our current economic system actually encourages such catastrophes. As long as our free-market economy pushes corporations to externalize their costs, companies will continue to risk everyone’s safety. Externalization—when a business shoves some of its costs onto someone else—is a well-recognized cause of what the economists call “market failure.” If a manufacturer disposes its wastes into the nearby river instead of paying for the proper treatment, the cost of waste disposal or treatment has been externalized onto the rest of society. Since neither the companies nor their consumers pay the true cost, more of the product is consumed than “should be.” Incentives for alternatives (in this case wind or solar) diminish.” Who pays? The residents downstream pay either to clean up the river by suffering the consequences of the pollution. Or we all pay in the form of taxes for the clean-up.

The economic system forces even an honest company to externalize whatever costs it can. If I pay my own costs of preventing or cleaning up my pollution, I’ll have to raise my prices and my competitors can run me out of business–unless they’re forced to internalize their costs, too. The only solution is to require all manufacturers to internalize the full cost of production.

10 In this case since neither BP nor any other oil company can afford to pay for the incalculable consequences of such a spill, part of the full cost of deep-water drilling would necessarily include insurance against any accidents. But no insurance company would risk selling such a policy, either. Therefore, no oil company could afford ultra-deep-water drilling, and it wouldn’t be done. Whatever compensation BP ultimately agrees to, the ultimate cost of the spill will be paid by the rest of us. Requiring internalization of all environmental costs will ultimately reduce oil production and raise prices substantially, effectively lowering the American standard of living.

The causes of the BP oil spill are not only the hubris of a particular company nor government incompetence. The hard-to-face learning is that our out-of-control consumerism is primarily responsible. America’s dependence on cheap oil, the realities of peak oil, the limits of technology, and the inability of our economic system to deal with externalized costs make such devastating “accidents” inevitable. The dirty little secret is that we face a sharp reduction in our standard of living—either shoved down our throat by future realities or graciously accepted now.

The Mathematics of Disaster

Adapted from a blog article by Bilbo, \ccbync

An article entitled “Drilling the Macondo Prospect” contains a great deal of interesting information about the tragic Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, where and how oil drilling is done at great depths in the Gulf of Mexico, and how we can go about calculating the force and pressure of the oil that, until recently, was blasting out of the ruined well and into the Gulf.

I’m no math genius, but the article lays out the calculations in a very understandable way. For instance, the amount of pressure exerted by 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet of rock that was forcing the oil out of the well was sufficient to lift six fully-loaded dump trucks straight up into the air, and it was pushing the oil out at about 260 mph. That’s a lot of force. And one has to wonder why nobody thought about how to control that much force if something had gone wrong.

The word hubris comes to us from the Greeks and refers to extreme arrogance and the overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power. And it often leads to a bad and humiliating end.

We often do things because we can, and not necessarily because we should. We can split the atom and generate lots of energy. We can also build nuclear weapons. But whether we should do either one is another issue. Nuclear power is often advertised as safe, clean, and environmentally friendly. But the search for a place to store radioactive waste that will be deadly to humans for tens of thousands of years indicates that there might have been an element of hubris involved in the decision to go forward.

Hubris seems to keep popping up and inviting us to calculate, if only after the fact, the mathematics of disaster. How much oil has spilled into the Gulf? How much will the cleanup cost? How long will Gulf seafood be unsafe to eat? What will be the ultimate cost in blood and treasure of a war in Iraq that was probably not necessary in the first place? Will New Orleans ever recover from a belief that the levees are just fine?

Hubris. It’s been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, and it’s not going away soon. And it’s good to remember that it often leads to another Greek word – nemesis, the divine retribution against acts of hubris. The faint laughter you hear in the background is nemesis waiting to celebrate the next round of hubris.

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions according to the article. Discuss your answers with a partner.

  1. According to the first article, what are four hubristic causes of the BP oil spill of 2010?
  2. What factor does this writer argue is the strongest cause of the BP oil spill?
  3. What is externalization?
  4. How does externalization affect companies? How does it affect consumers?
  5. In the BP oil spill, who is Nemesis? Who is punished?
  6. According to the first author, what is the only way we can avoid future oil disasters?
  7. In the second article, what other disasters are referred to?
  8. What is the main argument concerning hubris in each article?
  9. Why do you think people only look back, “after the fact”, after a disaster has happened rather than try to prevent it from happening?

CEFR Level: CEF Level C1

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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