04/19/2011 02:39 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

Safe, But in What Way?

In the wake of last April's Gulf blowout, in the midst of nuclear meltdown in Japan, and as people begin hearing that bedrock "fracking" for natural gas threatens to pollute water supplies including New York City's, lobbyists for Big Everything rush to assure us that these technologies are safe. And I agree; they are.

But that's not the question. The questions are: how safe, and in what way? Yes, we've had only two major, months-long blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico in the last three decades. It's a rare event. Nuclear meltdowns: a couple in the last two-and-a-half decades. Coal; a few miners now and then, some asthma, a bit of mercury in our seafood, and a few fewer mountains in the Appalachians.

Honestly, that's not many problems or many lives in exchange for keeping the lights on, the fridge cold, the house warm, the Internet connected, and the wheels rolling. Obviously, it works. Spectacularly so.

But is once every 15 years rare enough for something like a massive blowout or major meltdown?

When someone says their technology is "safe," they're answering the wrong question. The question isn't how rare the problems are. They're rare. It's how serious they are when they, inevitably, happen. Compare oil blowouts, tanker spills, nuclear meltdowns, and gas fracking's potential to contaminate the drinking water of major cities, to the insignificant problems that could be caused by a solar spill (sunburn?), a wind accident (no comparison to hurricanes and tornadoes), or a tanker spilling algae into the ocean.

Then, there's the things that go wrong when everything is going "right." Blowing up mountains to get at coal, felling enormous chunks of forests to get at "tar sands," and cracking bedrock to get at gas, are environmental calamities -- and no less so just because they're done on purpose, part of "the process."

Next are the boondoggles. The State Department is considering a proposed 1,700 mile pipeline to link Canadian tar-sands mines to Texas refineries -- even though there's already enough pipeline capacity to double U.S. imports from Canada. And -- getting back to the "how safe" question -- a similar pipe spilled 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 and a new pipeline that began carrying Canadian oil last year has already had nine leaks. It's as if we literally beg for trouble.

The New York Times recently quoted James M. Acton of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying, "all forms of energy carry risks." Does it take an expert to know that? And yet the message implied -- that all energy's risks are equal -- is irresponsibly wrong.

Again, the question we have to keep these people, and ourselves, focused on is: what are the risks? A giant solar array will take land away from wildlife, perhaps an endangered species. A wind farm will kill birds. But compared to 250,000 birds killed in just the first weeks after Exxon Valdez, or massive forest-cutting and river pollution from mining "tar sands," or the possible chaos of clearing a city because of nuclear meltdown... To put it simply: the risks differ a lot. That matters.

And that's not even mentioning the biggest and costliest problems fossil fuels cause: disrupting the planet's heat balance and acidifying the oceans, putting humanity's agriculture and fisheries into uncharted territory.

We can accept risk. But we can also minimize it. We drive cars while knowing it's dangerous. But we have them inspected so we know that at least our brakes and tires are realistically up to the job. Put it another way: there's risk, and there's recklessness.

Tip of the iceberg: the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the U.S. solar energy industry's total market value grew 67 percent last year, from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6.0 billion in 2010. Contrast that with overall U.S. GDP growth of less than 3 percent and you get some indication of the opportunities to do well by doing good.

Carl Safina is a MacArthur fellow, Pew fellow, and Guggenheim fellow, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include among others Song for the Blue Ocean, The View From Lazy Point, and his book about the 2010 Gulf blowout, A Sea in Flames. He is host of Saving the Ocean, which will premier on PBS television this spring.