Oil Spills and the Human Response to Catastrophe

05/11/2010 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stand by for the first book on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill off Louisiana. It will undoubtedly describe the spill as a disaster. There will be plenty of blame for BP, and some for the oil industry generally. There will be talk of other oil spills, about banning offshore drilling. There will probably be a good deal of blame on the government for letting this happen, or not being ready enough to clean up the mess. Which is all fine. The problem is that, like books about any catastrophe, the books about this spill will focus our attention on a single high-profile event, and distract us from far greater risks that don't evoke the same degree of concern just because they don't happen in one place, at one time.

Don't blame publishing for this. The books that sell are the ones about things we're interested in, and it turns out that precisely because it is a singular, large scale, high profile event, a large oil spill scares us more than other risks to the ocean that are far greater, but take place spread out over time and location. That's how it is with the perception of risk...oil spills or anything else. Catastrophic is scarier than chronic, even through the chronic risks are usually much bigger. Plane crashes versus car crashes. Mine disasters versus all the miners who die every year from black lung disease. Catastrophic risks grab our attention, so books about them sell.

The problem is, focusing on these high profile events, just because they happen to ring our innate psychological risk perception alarm bells, can distract us from greater risks. Don't get me wrong. I'm no fan of oil spills. But we are creating vast dead zones in the oceans off our urban coasts where runoff laced with fertilizers is feeding the growth of massive mats of suffocating slime and algae, killing off anything bigger. These areas are far larger than the Deepwater Horizon spill, and they are occurring around the world. We are warming the oceans with climate change, and acidifying them with carbon dioxide-laced precipitation, killing coral reefs, the rain forests of the ocean. We choke the seas with physical waste, ravage vast tracts of sea floor with heavy steel nets towed behind bottom trawling fishing fleets. These are EACH environmental catastrophes. But none of them gets nearly the attention that oil spills do with their pathetic photogenic oil coated birds and seals and their gut-turning scenes of wide swaths of brown oily gunk coating the surface. And as a result, less is being done to protect us from far greater risks.

It's understandable. Risk perception is not a strictly fact-based, rational affair. It's affective, a mix of facts and feelings, cognition and intuition. Catastrophic risks are scarier than chronic ones. Human-made risks are scarier than natural threats. Risks imposed on us feel scarier than the same risk if we choose to take it ourselves. While we can't change the affective nature of the human risk response, we can recognize that sometimes, our feelings create what I call a Perception Gap, a gap between our fears and the facts that is dangerous in and of itself. If we're too afraid, or not afraid enough, we can do things that feel safe but actually raise our risk. And we can end up pushing the government for policies to protect us from what we're afraid of, even if that's not what actually threatens us the most, and resources spent on the relatively smaller risk are diverted away from protecting us from the bigger one.

There will always be interest in, and a market for, books about catastrophes. But let's hope that they don't play up our fears of these singular and awful events so much that we lose sight of where the real dangers lie. That would only be making the catastrophe, worse.