Design Failure and Conservation

Also in Conservation Biology, Volume 16 #2, 2000.

H. L. Menchen said that for every problem there is an answer that is short, simple, and wrong.  David Orr is one of the few thinkers who seeks to understand the broad-reaching interconnections among problems, and their relationships to biological diversity, conservation issues, and the creation of a decent and healthy world. Such a vision across boundaries enables him to see root causes and to offer answers based on whole-system understanding.

He is correct that our current vulnerability–economic, ecological, food, security–is not so much a result of too little military, as it is of too little design intelligence. Our energy systems are a prime example. The attacks of 9-11 made it clear that dependence on Mideast oil and fragile domestic infrastructure threaten national energy security. Replacing Mideast oil is essential, but increasing our reliance on equally or more vulnerable domestic sources only trades one form of vulnerability for another.

This is because we have a national energy infrastructure that is brittle by design.

Concentrated energy infrastructure and supplies invite devastating attack. Two decades ago, Amory Lovins and I authored a study for the Pentagon that was later published as the book Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security (see www.brittlepower.org). That 500-page, 1,200-reference study found that a handful of people could shut down three-quarters of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern United States in one evening and without leaving Louisiana, cut the power to any major city, or kill millions of people by crashing an airliner into a nuclear power plant. Little has changed in nearly two decades.

The centerpiece of the whimsically named Homeland Energy Security Bill now before the United States Senate is to extract oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Doing this would clearly harm the biological riches of the Refuge. Yet, the official data show there is perhaps no economically recoverable oil there, and there is no way to supply that oil in under a decade. Even if the oil were there, and could be rapidly and profitably extracted, there is no secure way to deliver it. Transcending both economic and environmental issues is that doubling and greatly prolonging dependence on the vulnerable Trans-Alaska Pipeline (the only way to deliver any oil that might be found) would prolong use of one of the fattest terrorist targets in the country. Author Bill McKibben calls it pinning a “kick me” sign on Uncle Sam’s backside. The 800-mile-long pipeline is largely aboveground and accessible to attacks. It has been found by the Army to be indefensible and has already been sabotaged, incompetently bombed twice, and shot at on more than 50 occasions. A drunk with a rifle shut it down on Oct. 4, 2001. A disgruntled engineer seeking profits in the oil futures market was caught four months before blowing up three key points with 14 sophisticated bombs. He was a bungler compared with the members of the al-Qa‘eda terrorist network.

The other centerpiece of present energy policy–building more centralized, capital-intensive powerplants–suffers from similar lack of logic. No solution that costs a lot, is easy to attack, and cannot deliver power for many years is a rational answer to western civilization’s need for affordable, resilient power. Energy security requires both decreasing reliance on Mideast oil and redesigning the basic architecture of energy infrastructure in a less centralized and brittle direction. An energy source is not made secure just by being located in the country where it is used; it must also be designed to make largescale failures impossible and local failures benign. The only approach that can actually deliver real energy security is to efficiently combine cost-effective increases in energy with energy sources that are inherently invulnerable because they are diverse, dispersed, localized, and renewable. Such alternatives work better, can be built faster, cost less, and improve the environment. This approach not only ensures security, it stimulates the economy, addresses the global climate issue, and reduces or eliminates most other insults to the environment, all at a profit. How’s that for whole-systems thinking?

David suggests that it would be wise for us to understand why so many people around the MiddleEast seem to hate Americans. One need not look far. David James Duncan reports in Orion Magazine, (Summer, 2001) that in 1991, in the wake of Desert Storm, the Defense Intelligence Agency researched what the effect would be of strategically bombing the water storage systems and sewage treatment systems of Iraq. The documents describing this are available online at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/.

Iraqi rivers contain biological material and pollutants, which, unless treated with chlorine, cause epidemic diseases like cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. The documents note that chlorine was embargoed by the sanctions, as were food, all other forms of drinkable liquid, and medicine. The documents predicted that if Iraq’s water systems were destroyed it would be poor Iraqis, particularly children, who would be affected. The U.S. systematically destroyed the water and sewage systems of Iraq anyway.

This resulted, as the Defense Intelligence documents describe, in epidemic outbreaks of dysentery, respiratory ailments, diptheria, meningitis, and other diseases. One DIA document describes a refugee camp in which 80% of the population had diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis B, or gastroenteritis. The Defense Intelligence Agency felt, however, that the Iraqi regime was exaggerating the incidence of disease for political purposes and rejected suggestions that the sanctions be lifted. So, like Saddam Hussein, the sanctions and fouled water remain in place to this day. The United Nations reports that five hundred thousand Iraqi children aged five and under have died as a result, and that 5,000 more infants and children will continue to die each month until medicine and safe water are restored.

Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are only the most recent examples of U.S. support for corrupt, tyrannical leaders in developing countries. Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Kwitny, has chronicled in his brilliant book, Endless Enemies, how U.S. foreign policy has wasted billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives making the world a decidedly more dangerous place. Political and military blunders, the attempt by the government and corporations to alter the governments and economies of developing countries, and huge and inexplicable expenditures of money and lives have bought leaders and populations resentful that they grew up being fired at by American guns. This does nothing, of course, to improve social or environmental conditions around the world, or sustainability in any sense of the word. It is clearly a fundamental design failure.

David Orr’s thoughtful employment of whole-systems thinking to better understand how national security and foreign policy are inextricable from environmental policy and biodiversity issues should be required reading for all who desire to find an alternative to collapsing buildings and anthrax-laced letters.

Posted in Articles, Hunter Lovins