I think it’s actually right to say that the BP oil spill is something like Obama’s Katrina, but not in the sense in which most critics seem to mean it.
It’s like Katrina in that many people’s attitudes regarding the response to it reveal completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them—and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.
Let’s say a major hurricane hits a large and densely populated American city with five hundred thousand inhabitants. Much of the city is below sea level, and the flood-waters that follow in the wake of the storm quickly overrun it, filling nearly every street with water, in many places fifteen feet in depth. The magnitude of human suffering and destruction of property is mind-boggling. But within six days, everyone is out of the city and in total approximately one thousand people—one in five hundred residents—lost their lives in the calamity. Hour by hour, the government response was messy and ugly—it could hardly be otherwise given the magnitude of the disaster. But looked at with a little perspective, is that really a story of a failure of government response, or is it an example of how to contend with an immense natural disaster in a densely populated urban center? Is it a model of incompetence, or the most effective mass evacuation in human history?
Now let’s say a massive oil drilling platform, working with a variety of flammable and explosive liquids and gases in huge amounts more than 40 miles out in the ocean suddenly experiences a catastrophic failure that sets off a fiery explosion, sets the rig on fire, and causes it to sink—releasing an enormous gush of oil into the ocean more than 5,000 feet below sea level. Vast quantities of oil spill into the sea, threatening fish, wildlife, and coastal industries. The company that owns the rig, together with federal regulators, scientists, and engineers, tries a variety of different techniques—from remotely operated vehicles to containment domes to pumping heavy fluids down large pipes onto the well head—some of them invented on the fly, while 80 ships and several thousand people engage in a sophisticated cleanup and containment effort. Is this a failure of regulation and a model of slothful inefficiency, or is it an impressive display of human ingenuity and power in response to a terrible accident? We don’t yet know how long the spill will continue or how bad its consequences will turn out to be. And obviously it would have been great to avert such an accident, or to respond even faster and more effectively when it happened. But can we really say that not having done so is a massive failure of government, or of the oil industry?
We seem to think that given our modern powers, there ought to be no accidents and no natural disasters anymore, and when those happen we blame the people in charge. Well, call me crazy but I don’t want a government so powerful that it could move half a million people in mere hours in response to a hurricane, or would have such total control over every facet of every industry that the potential for industrial accidents would be entirely eliminated. Such power would come at enormous cost to a lot of things we care about.
We who live in the 21st century West have the least messy, least dangerous, least uncertain lives of any human beings in history. We should be very grateful for that, but we should not let our good fortune utterly distort our expectations of life, and we should not react with unrestrained indignant shock anytime the limitations of our power make themselves seen or the cold and harsh capriciousness of nature overcomes our defenses. We should expect a firm response from the institutions we have built to protect ourselves—science, technology, and modern government—but we cannot expect a perfect response. Not from Bush, and not from Obama.
Let’s hope the administration does a better job in response to this spill than it has so far, just as the Bush administration could certainly have done a better job in its response to Katrina. It’s clear they have made mistakes. But let’s not pretend that what we’re witnessing here is fundamentally a colossal failure of the federal government. There are plenty of those going on, but this isn’t one of them.