Tag Archives: matt-ridley

Oil Spills and Nature’s Resilience

Faced with an oil spill of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon’s mag­nitude, nature is resi­li­ent and well-adap­ted to cope with the consequences–that is, provided we don’t try to clean it using meth­ods that will do more dam­age.

Matt Rid­ley, author of The Ration­al Optim­ist (and many of my favour­ite pop­u­lar sci­ence books), dis­cusses what we should remem­ber from pre­vi­ous oil spills, and what this means for the Gulf of Mex­ico in the face of yet anoth­er oil spill:

First, be care­ful not to do more harm than good. When the Tor­rey Canyon was wrecked off Corn­wall in 1967, spill­ing 120,000 tonnes of oil, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of deter­gents, which were much more dam­aging to mar­ine life than the oil itself, then bull­dozed the oil and deter­gents into the sand on some beaches where it per­sisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the ele­ments.

The mis­take was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince Wil­li­am Sound. Thou­sands of volun­teers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would oth­er­wise have eaten the oil.

Speak­ing of microbes, do not under­es­tim­ate nature’s powers of recov­ery. After most big oil spills, sci­ent­ists are pleas­antly sur­prised by how quickly the oil dis­ap­pears and the mar­ine life reappears. […] The Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmo­spher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion says on its web­site: ‘What sci­ent­ists have found is that, des­pite the gloomy out­look in 1989, the inter­tid­al hab­it­ats of Prince Wil­li­am Sound have proved to be sur­pris­ingly resi­li­ent.’ A sci­ent­ist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that ‘Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mex­ico are just wild over­re­ac­tions’. […]

This rap­id recov­ery was also a sig­na­ture of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 dis­aster off Mex­ico in 1979. Although the num­ber of turtles took dec­ades to recov­er, much of the rest of the wild­life bounced back fairly rap­idly. […] The warm waters and strong sun­shine of the Gulf of Mex­ico are highly con­du­cive to the chem­ic­al decom­pos­i­tion of oil by ‘photo-oxid­a­tion’, and are stuffed full of organ­isms that actu­ally like to eat the stuff – in mod­er­a­tion.

Rid­ley also notes how wind farms kill “far more rare birds per joule of energy pro­duced than oil does” and that the wind farm at Alta­mont Pass in Cali­for­nia kills more birds each year that the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill did (≈ 1,300).

via The Browser

Innovation and the ‘Creation’ of Time

I make no secret of being a huge fan of Matt Rid­ley’s body of work, and his latest addi­tion to this, The Ration­al Optim­ist, seems like a wel­come addi­tion.

A won­der­ful sum­mary of the book’s main theme–that innov­a­tion and the spread­ing of the­or­ies and ideas is the key to a pros­per­ous future and we should be optim­ist­ic for what lies ahead because of this–has been writ­ten by John Tier­ney, with a nice look at one reas­on why innov­a­tion and its com­pan­ions are import­ant for pro­gress:

“For­get wars, reli­gions, fam­ines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Rid­ley writes. “This is his­tory’s greatest theme: the meta­stas­is of exchange, spe­cial­iz­a­tion and the inven­tion it has called forth, the ‘cre­ation’ of time.”

You can appre­ci­ate the timesav­ing bene­fits through a meas­ure devised by the eco­nom­ist Wil­li­am D. Nord­haus: how long it takes the aver­age work­er to pay for an hour of read­ing light. In ancient Babylon, it took more than 50 hours to pay for that light from a ses­ame-oil lamp. In 1800, it took more than six hours of work to pay for it from a tal­low candle. Today, thanks to the count­less spe­cial­ists pro­du­cing elec­tri­city and com­pact fluor­es­cent bulbs, it takes less than a second.

Causes of Poverty and Prosperity

Matt Ridley—author of The Red Queen, among others—discusses the causes of poverty and prosper­ity, offer­ing new (to me) insights on innov­a­tion, tech­no­logy and mar­kets.

It’s very clear from his­tory that mar­kets bring forth innov­a­tion. If you’ve got free and fair exchange with decent prop­erty rights and a suf­fi­ciently dense pop­u­la­tion, then you get innov­a­tion. […]

The only insti­tu­tion that really counts is trust, if you like. And something’s got to allow that to build. […]

But human beings are spec­tac­u­larly good at des­troy­ing trust-gen­er­at­ing insti­tu­tions. They do this through three creatures: chiefs, thieves, and priests.

via Arts and Let­ters Daily