18 March 2011

Media Overhype and the Profound Wisdom of the Warlock Assassin

Over the past week I've watched with everyone else the nightmare that's happening in Japan.  I've seen the surreal videos, the ongoing drama of the situation at Fukushima, and the incessant commentary on it.

The team at Global Voices Online asked me to provide a summary of what science bloggers were saying about the whole mess, and I have two posts there now - one that provides explanations of earthquakes and tsunamis, and one that looks at what's being said about the partial nuclear meltdown.

I'm really struck by two things, however.  First, the panic the US media has instilled in everyone through their horror-movie graphics and end-of-days tone.   Earlier this week I heard Eliot Spitzer teasing upcoming segments on CNN by saying things like "is the situation as bad as the pictures tell us, or is it even worse?" and then peppering people on his show with questions like "so what is the worst-case scenario for us here."  Never mind that the worst-case scenario isn't close to being the most likely scenario, but hey, if it bleeds it leads.

The next morning CNN reports that people in the United States are stocking up on iodine pills, despite the fact that they're not even remotely necessary here and these pills have some side effects.   And I do note the irony that the media reports on the frenzy it helped create.

The second thing that strikes me is how amazingly polarized the discussion about energy is becoming, and how that is affecting our willingness and ability to plan. Rita King wrote a great piece at the Scientific American Guest Blog and summed it up thusly:
Opinions around nuclear energy tend to be binary, with industry proponents acting as if nothing could possibly go wrong while critics, terrified of nuclear apocalypse, remain convinced that old nuclear plants are time bombs.
She's right.   A very significant portion (though not all) of the environmental movement is now NO NUKES- NO WAY.  Make it 100 percent safe before you do it.  But the truth is there's no such thing as a 100 percent safe anything - particularly when it comes to energy.  Coal mines will cave in from time to time.  Oil rigs will explode.  Hurricanes will hit refineries.  Even windmills have their issues (though not nearly on the same scope).  And we sometimes forget that we have enormous energy needs and the only way we can meet those needs right now is through those high-yield, high-emission fossil fuels.

What's worse to me, though, is the PR position of the energy industry - perhaps in reaction to the environmentalists, but I think more likely in reaction to the regulatory environment - the idea that so many things that could go wrong are simply not possible.  The messaging apparently became part of the culture at BP and other companies.  It's why you submit a disaster response plan for the Gulf of Mexico that's simply cut and pasted from your disaster response plan for Alaska.  It's not like anything's going to happen anyway, so who cares?

We have moved forward on energy siting and building decisions with an incomplete notion of contingencies.  And of course, this isn't isolated only to the energy sector - essentially any company or government or NGO that has anything that serves as a potential risk is vulnerable.

Shockingly, so much of this can be resolved by following the advice of Charlie Sheen, the self-described warlock assassin with tiger blood coursing through his veins - PLAN BETTER.  Seriously, suck it up and acknowledge that crazy stuff can and eventually will happen and you should be ready for it.  Embracing this notion will make companies more, not less credible with their neighbors, customers and the media. The evidence that we don't do enough of this is staring us in the face in the Gulf of Mexico, in coal mines in West Virginia, and in Fukushima.

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