Strange Attractors on Parade

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day last week served up a slew of what mathematicians call "strange attractors." A strange attractor is a pattern that always recurs, but in a chaotic, unpredictable way. If you change the system in small ways, the strange attractor always comes back. Imagine a leaking faucet that, however often you turn the water on and off, always leaks, but not always at the same rate or volume.

Here's a NASA Earth Observatory photo of the oil slick that is spreading from the exploded carcass of oil rig Deepwater Horizon. The explosion, tragically, killed 11 workers.

The spill now covers 1,800 square miles,  and efforts by government officials to seal it using the established "fail-safe" mechanisms built into modern oil platforms have failed -- just as efforts to clean up the spilled oil have been thwarted by bad weather. The current rate of leaks from the pipeline is not very large -- 42,000 gallons a day -- but the rig itself contains 700,000 gallons of oil that no one knows the ultimate fate of.

Serious questions have arisen about whether oil giant BP and the rig owner violated occupational safety and health regulations in ways that contributed to the catastrophe,  but there is no doubt that BP fought tougher safety regulations that might have prevented the tragedy.

So why do I call this a "strange attractor"? Because, sooner or later, mixing oil and the ocean always ends up yielding oil spills -- the details might vary (and the details matter) but the pattern, the attractor, is unavoidable.

And yet, every time there is an oil spill from offshore oil rigs or from oil tankers, the oil industry describes it as the result of exceptional circumstances -- Captain Hazelwood's possible inebriation on the Exxon Valdez, Hurricane Katrina, bad weather (for the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the disastrous Guimaras oil spill in the Philippines), or reckless navigation (when the Cosco Busan crashed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge).

And after every disaster, the oil industry returns to its soothing patter that "really, oil and water do mix, and we can drill off our coasts and rely on oil imported in tankers without much fear because the industry has changed, and this can't happen again."

Take this excerpt from an op-ed by the Florida Petroleum Council's Dave Mica:

"The good news is that Florida does not have to choose between offshore oil and natural gas development and tourism and the environment. State-of-the-art advances in seismic measurements, directional drilling, subsea production and safety systems, along with cooperative planning among industry, governments, local communities and environmental stakeholders, have led to incredibly creative and responsible approaches for reaching oil and natural gas resources in unique areas."

When did he offer this reassurance to the people of Florida? On March 22, three weeks before Deepwater Horizon exploded.

No sooner does the industry say it has solved whatever problem caused the last oil spill, than a new problem is discovered.

The reality is that if a system has a strange attractor -- and oil and the oceans do -- that system always returns to its basic pattern. In this case, that pattern is oil spills and ecological disaster. That's because the volatility and fluidity of the oceans simply make it impossible for humans to safely produce and ship oil within that environment, and because profit-driven companies will cut corners often enough to ensure that disaster results. The companies don't know which shortcut will be catastrophic, which is why the pattern is unpredictable and chaotic. Not every rig or tanker succumbs. But regardless of what the industry tells us, we can be certain that the tragedies will continue.

Oil spills are not the only example of a strange attractor reasserting itself during Earth Week. While it is true that there were exceptional circumstances surrounding the Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy (the callousness and recklessness of Massey Energy and Don Blankenship, its CEO), it's also true that effort after effort to ban that kind of carelessness from the coal-mining industry has failed. Coal mining and the unnecessary loss of human life constitute another chaotic, but predictable, pattern.

As long as we keep relying on coal to provide us with energy, companies like Massey and profit-driven owners like Blankenship will put their employees in harm's way. Not all coal operators or companies behave this way -- but no regulatory system yet devised has proven a powerful enough to shift the coal industry to a fundamentally different, safety-driven pattern. Four years ago, after the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, many of the same political leaders who are now deploring what happened at Upper Big Branch -- Senator Robert Byrd, Governor Joe Manchin and others -- demanded changes in mining regulations. Changes that would ensure that such a preventable disaster could never happen again.

They failed.

Why do these strange attractors exist? Why do major oil leaks from both offshore oil rigs and tankers keep recurring? Why do reckless mining companies and coal seem inseparable? Mathematicians would point out that figuring out the underlying dynamics that create such attractors is very difficult, so what I'm going to proffer is no more than an educated guess: I suggest that whenever we use technology on a large scale that involves very dangerous materials in large quantities, with relatively low economic value, the strange attractor will be tragedy. The need to keep costs low to make money in such an industry eventually erodes the necessary obsession with safety that could avoid catastrophe. Oil rigs are deployed deeper than ever before, and safety equipment fails. Coal prices slump, and a greedy owner cuts corners. The specific events are what investigators and the media focus on -- but it's the pattern, the underlying attractor, that we should be  learning from.

There was a third strange attractor on display during Earth Week. This one involved nuclear power. Three nations, each equipped with nuclear technology originally provided in the name of "atoms for peace," kept the world's diplomats (and generals) on edge.

Pakistan, is not officially a rogue nation -- its reactor technology originally came from its ally the U.S. -- but it has been the source of much of the nuclear know-how that has made Iran and North Korea so scary. During Earth Week, Pakistan announced that it was back in the business of providing nuclear-fuel services to other nations, while a leaked U.S. study revealed that there is a real risk that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Iran launched a series of military exercises in the Straits of Hormuz, while Iranian President Ahmadinejad  called the ability of the U.N. Security Council to use sanctions to discourage nuclear proliferation "Satanic."

Meanwhile North Korea celebrated Earth Day by revealing that it was considering a third nuclear bomb test.

Again, every time a nation that originally began to master nuclear technology to generate electricity becomes a nuclear weapons state, analysts look for the unique pathway. But what we really have here is a strange attractor. Give nuclear-technology to a nation and then wait for its politics to go toxic (well, North Korea was always toxic). It will become a nuclear threat to its neighbors. That's the pattern, the attractor. We don't know which nations will develop toxic regimes, so we can't predict the next nuclear rogue. But add nuclear power to rogue regimes and the attractor is nuclear proliferation.

So when you read that nuclear power can safely become part of the solution to global warming because its been successfully deployed in  France, remember: That's not the issue. Rather, it's how many nuclear scientists do we want to train in the parts of the world that really need more electricity -- places like the Sudan, the Congo, and even Venezuela? In the case of nuclear power, unlike oil or coal, the biggest risk is from the scientists, not the accidents. It's a different pattern, but still a deeply ingrained one.

So should the persistence of these strange attractors cause us to throw up our hands and accept oil spills, coal-mining disasters, and nuclear rogue states as inevitable? No. That's because any complex, dynamic system has more than one attractor. All you need is a big-enough jolt to the system to stop it from continually generating the same tragic results.

For all three of the systems I've described, we already have a very powerful jolt: clean energy. Offshore wind turbines will sometimes succumb to hurricanes -- but when they do, vast quantities of oil won't rush to the surface. Manufacturing solar cells does involve the use of toxic chemicals -- but the profit margins and technical demands of making cells are large enough that no one will ever run a solar-cell factory the way Don Blankenship ran the Upper Big Mine Branch -- by plugging windows with rags. And if every building constructed in the Sudan used state-of-the-art, high-performance, energy-efficient windows, we wouldn't have to worry  that the engineers who designed them might also be moonlighting for Al Qaeda.

So we ought to recognize that coal, oil, and nuclear power all generate dangerous, life-threatening strange attractors. But let's also acknowledge that we can jump our energy system into a new, much more stable, secure, and innovative state -- if we simply stop relying on those old technologies to power our economies and instead build our future on clean energy.