Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Defining the Problem

What caused the Gulf oil spill? To describe how it happened is easy enough. Most people generally agree with the following series of events. On April 20, 2010, a huge fire erupted on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 and injuring 17 others. The fire was most likely caused when a large pocket of methane gas came up the pipes from the underwater well and exploded on the rig. After burning uncontrollably for a day and a half, the rig sank into the ocean. Oil soon started flowing out of the uncapped well in large but undetermined amounts. To date, British Petroleum and its subsidiaries have been unable to stop the flow of oil despite several attempts.

This description of events does not, however, explain what went wrong deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Was the spill caused by a failed blowout preventer? Are regulators or oil companies to blame? Is this an inevitable outcome of a society dependent on fossil fuel energy? Which explanation we choose will have vital consequences for our response to the crisis. More than any other factor, how we come to understand the Gulf oil spill will structure how we attempt to solve it.

We are accustomed to thinking of problem-solving as a two-stage process where a situation is investigated first and solutions are developed afterwards. However, these two steps are not independent: the way that a problem is defined creates a particular view of what the proper solutions are and who is responsible for implementing them. Problems and solutions are mutually constitutive.

We can already see several possible explanations for the Gulf oil spill circulating through society. Here I lay out four problem framings with their accompanying solutions.

First, this could be considered a failure of technology: the blowout preventer is to blame. On this view, the safety device installed by BP and its subsidiaries to close the well in the case of an accident did not work correctly. If we understand the problem to be a failed blowout preventer, the solution is straightforward: design better safety devices and pass regulations requiring their use. The responsible parties would then be the oil companies (to develop the better technologies) and the relevant regulatory agencies (to develop stronger regulations).

Second, the situation could be explained as a result of capture: the cozy relationships between industry and regulators that lead to weak regulations and lax enforcement. The fact that the Mineral Management Service (MMS) was responsible for both regulating off-shore drilling companies and collecting revenue payments from them created a financial incentive against effective regulation. MMS officials encouraged drilling to increase revenues instead of enforcing strict safety regulations. The solution on this view is an independent regulatory structure, a reform that is already underway (on May 20, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a secretarial order breaking MMS into separate divisions for energy development, enforcement, and revenue collection). This reading of the problem requires actions by government regulators.

Third, the oil spill can be seen as the result of corporate hubris: a rapacious company acting to maximize its profits at any cost. On this view, BP, in its ongoing quest to maximize shareholder value, rushed into deepwater drilling without adequate understanding of the potential risks. Moreover, the company cut costs by minimizing investment in safety equipment and overlooked the reports of engineers who raised warning bells. The proper solution under this framing is a series of punitive measures against BP and its subsidiaries including lawsuits to recoup the costs of cleanup, the revoking of off-shore drilling licenses, increased taxes, and boycotts of BP fueling stations. Most of these actions would be taken by Congress and regulators; consumers would be responsible for the boycotts.

Fourth, the oil spill can be seen as the result of excessive social dependence on fossil fuel energy. Given the world’s insatiable demand for oil, big spills can be seen as an inevitable outcome. No amount of safety equipment or measures can prevent some form of accident from happening when complex technological systems, unpredictable environments, and capitalism interact. On this reading, the proper response is to wean society from fossil fuel energy. Practically all members of society would be called to action: government agencies to fund renewable energy development, put a fair price on carbon, and require renewable energy use; corporations to develop new energy technologies; and consumers to alter modes of consumption.

If American history is any guide, it is fair to assume that policymakers will favor the technological fix. Americans have long been captivated by the potential of technology to fix problems. Moreover, such a solution has two substantial benefits. First, it deflects blame away from human actors, and second, it is easy to accept because it places responsibility on a relatively narrow set of actors to solve a clearly defined problem. If such a reading of the problem becomes commonly accepted, we can expect that the oil spill will play out similarly to the investigations of the NASA Challenger disaster in 1986. A defective o-ring was identified as the culprit, setting the stage for a set of technological fixes such as redesigning the rocket boosters. Although some investigations pointed out flaws in the organizational culture, NASA created a band-aid solution to these critiques by setting up a few oversight boards. The problem, and therefore the solution, was assumed to be technological in nature.

For those who believe there are deep interconnections between energy and society, a technical fix to the current crisis is clearly inadequate. As many critics pointed out, NASA’s failure to address deeper and more systemic organizational problems contributed to the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The current crisis is an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the interactions between their personal consumption decisions, several decades of neoliberal deregulation of energy markets, a pervasive ideology of economic growth, and the environment in which we live. Such an approach has the potential to lead to meaningful changes in the ways we produce, transport, and consume energy. However, this can only happen if society comes to accept that more went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico than a broken blowout preventer.

For better or worse, the solutions to the Gulf oil spill disaster will largely be a product of the way the problem is defined. If we care to get the solutions right, then we should pay close attention to how we define what went wrong.

(Note: this column was originally posted on H-Energy on July 7, 2010 as part of a roundtable on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill).

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Seduction of Innovation

Innovation is the watchword of our day. Listen to pundits on radios and televisions and you’ll hear a consistent message. We need innovative responses to urban poverty, the U.S. economy, and medical care. Name a hot topic, and you can find prominent spokespeople advocating the value of more innovation. Innovation has become our society’s default response to addressing social problems.

This is particularly true for our energy systems. Contemporary energy debates are littered with calls for more innovation. We need innovation because the United States is falling behind China in clean technology. We need innovation, we are told, in our collaborations between industry, government, and universities. We need innovation in small businesses, think tanks, and research institutions to generate the next generation of clean energy solutions.

On the surface, there seems to be little wrong with such claims. What is the problem with inventing better solutions, developing new technologies, or doing more with less? To take a position against innovation seems rather like being against puppies and apple pies. Well, to take this analogy further, puppies can pee on the floor and pie can make us fat, so perhaps such observations enable us to examine innovation more critically.

To put it bluntly, innovation is problematic because it has become a limiting perspective on the world around us. If you are a hammer, the world tends to look like a nail. Innovation has become our society’s hammer, and we are forgetting that we have other tools.

For example, appeals to innovation imply that we lack the knowledge, technologies, or skills to solve our problems. In today’s world, this is not always the case. We already know a great deal about how to address our energy problems. There are a wide variety of solutions we could implement today that require no innovation. We could pass a carbon tax, implement energy efficiency programs with existing technologies, and expand the distribution of renewable energy systems. None of these actions require innovation to implement. If we already know many things to do, then calls for innovation are problematic because they distract us from acting immediately on solutions already at our fingertips.

Another problem with innovation is that it advocates a particular set of relationships between government, the private sector, and the free market. In short, innovation is remarkably consistent with free-market principles, limited government, and a belief that the private sector will solve our problems. Innovation and neoliberalism complement each other to a surprising degree. However, this might not be the only set of relationships between government, markets, and industries that is beneficial. For example, many people have called for the U.S. to engage in a Manhattan or Apollo Project for renewable energy. The creation of the atomic bomb and the lunar mission, it should be remembered, were accomplished under a very different set of relationships between public and private than is popular in today’s rhetoric. Government officials directed large sources of capital, organized projects, and actively shaped the activities of hundreds of subcontractors. Centralized planning, rather than innovation, characterized these projects. Broadly speaking, such efforts succeeded and might work again. But the key point is that these projects were based on a different set of ideas about the right relations between public and private than are implicit in calls for innovation. An exclusive focus on innovation, therefore, diminishes the potential of other management approaches such as central planning to aid us in our efforts.

In sum, innovation is not a bad thing, but we need to use it more critically. In our current age, it is all too common to treat innovation as the solution to any problem. We would do much better if we retained a full set of tools and approaches for addressing issues. When the world calls for a hammer, we should use a hammer. But let’s not love the hammer so much that we turn the world into a nail.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Getting to the Heart of Climate Science Debates

The public release of a series of emails between climate scientists in November of 2009 created a widespread controversy. In and of itself, this is quite fascinating. In our anti-intellectual age, the fact that the correspondence of a small group of nerds became a topic of widespread debate is surprising, to say the least. For several weeks, the personal lives of climate scientists were discussed alongside the vacations, romances, and indiscretions of celebrities. In an unexpected twist, the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and Paris Hilton suddenly had common ground on which to commiserate.

Climategate, as the scandal became known, provides no end of opportunities to reflect on the interconnections between science and society. Does the fact that scientists are not always nice people influence the ways we understand their knowledge claims? Why has there been so little media attention dedicated to the illegal hacking of private servers? When will society began to recognize more broadly that scientific knowledge production is a messy process and that deviations from the ideals of the scientific method are the norm, rather than the exception?

Here I want to focus on one particular aspect of climate science skepticism more generally: the curious focus by broad groups of people on the epistemological correctness of scientific claims. In most domains, the claims of scientists are largely ignored. When was the last time you overheard people talking heatedly about the protein folding patterns? In climate science, such claims are at the forefront. Why are people so animated about the alleged massaging of statistical data, the accuracy of tree ring evidence, and the soundness of Himalayan glacier melting estimates? Does this represent a sudden uptick of interest in science across broad segments of the public?

I doubt it. Instead, I think it is more useful to understand the debates over climate data as a proxy for deeper questions about the proper role of science in a democratic society.

Science is not simply a method for asking and answering questions about the natural world we live in. Our views about what science should be performed, who should fund it, and what we should do with the results reflect broader notions about what type of world we should live in. When we hear someone ask “how accurate are the models?” we should realize that they may be asking “who has the right to make policy-relevant knowledge?” as well. “Do predictions of glacial melting incorporate the latest findings?” can also mean “what type of local, national, and international governance is appropriate for addressing climate change?”

Let me spell out these distinctions with two hypothetical examples of how a climate scientist and a climate skeptic might approach the role of science in society. According to our imagined climate scientist, the following claims make sense: knowledge should be made by the best and the brightest; policy makers should base their actions on scientific facts; international government agencies are best capable of addressing a problem that is global in scale; society should act aggressively when scientists report risks; governments should impose whatever tax burden on society is deemed necessary to address the risk.

Our hypothetical climate skeptic adheres to a different view of the relationships between science and society: knowledge that can only be created and understood by a few is elitist and therefore untrustworthy; scientific evidence is one among a broad set of criteria for determining policy; actions taken by international governmental agencies may undercut local autonomy and self-rule; a conservative policy agenda will address the wide range of social problems better over time than knee-jerk reactions; the social costs of policies must be weighed against any potential benefits.

Clearly, there are many actors in climate science debates and they hold a wide variety of opinions not captured by this simple schematic. However, the point of this example is to show that how people understand facts is intimately linked to their conception of a good world. In other words, facts are normative. As a result, when we hear debates over the facts, we should be listening for the underlying conversations.

With these thoughts in mind, one of the unfortunate aspects of our current climate debates is that because the discussion is about scientific facts, we are missing chances to have broader discussions about a shared future. While humans have rarely managed to reach consensus about the best ways to live together in the world, such dialogue is all too rare in this day and age. If we were to discuss the relations between science and the state, our commitments to ourselves and future generations, and the best ways to achieve these goals, we might come a lot closer to addressing climate change than by focusing narrowly on the accuracy of scientific facts.