Why We Lacked Resilience

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast is raising the price of everything from cosmetics to crude oil, gasoline to grain. How could one storm score a hit on every wallet in the country?

The answer is that as a society we lack sufficient resilience—the ability to recover from or adapt to adversity—to avoid such an outcome. We permitted a situation to arise in which a huge proportion of the nation’s energy-production infrastructure became concentrated in one region—a region prone to hurricane-related catastrophes, no less.

In both the private and public sectors, resilience is crucial. The buggy-whip manufacturers had to begin supplying automobile components to Henry Ford’s assembly line or die; and the federal government achieved an historic success in World War II’s Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that ended the war.

Resilience is in short supply these days, however; and there is plenty of blame to go around. Politicians—federal, state, and local—tend to be short-term thinkers, their purview often limited to the next election. Moreover, many of them are particularly challenged in science and logic. The harsh truth is that there is little correlation between electability and problem solving.

The nation as a whole would have been far more resilient to Katrina had we located oil refineries in other parts of the country and markedly reduced our dependence on oil by constructing additional nuclear power plants.

These efforts, however, have been blocked by failures of both government and non-governmental lobbying groups. Nuclear energy has become the third rail of politics, and irresponsible radical environmentalists have prevented the construction of a single new oil refinery or nuclear power plant for decades. (And witness the seemingly endless acrimony over the creation of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.)

These activists detest the oil and coal-mining companies, they abhor nuclear power, and now they’re even complaining about wind turbines killing birds—so what do they approve of? Not long ago, a Greenpeace activist knocked on the door of my home and tried to convince me that the answer to our energy needs was to grow vast quantities of hemp. Hemp? I threatened to set the dog on her.

Mindless, anti-technology activism—whether in NGOs or government—is inimical to resilience. It jeopardizes our survival as individuals and our success as a society. There are many examples. Consider, for example, the six-year-old U.S. outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, a significant threat to public health. By mid-September, the middle of the West Nile fever season (there is a time lag during which animals are infected, mosquitoes convey the virus to humans, and the virus incubates until symptoms occur), infections had been found in animal hosts (primarily birds) in 44 states and had caused almost a thousand serious infections and dozens of deaths in humans in 36 states. As of September 6, Louisiana ranked fourth in the nation in human West Nile virus infections, but with most of New Orleans still under water and providing a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, there are likely to be far more cases.

Thanks to politically correct but egregiously flawed federal regulatory policy, however, the tools available to local officials are limited—and largely ineffective. In the absence of a vaccine, eliminating the mosquito is the key to preventing epidemics, but fundamental shortcomings in public policy have made unavailable the most potent weapon in our arsenal: DDT, an inexpensive and effective pesticide once widely deployed to kill disease-carrying insects.

In 1972, on the basis of data on toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but not to humans), the Environmental Protection Agency banned virtually all uses of DDT. (How ironic that regulators banned it largely for its toxicity to birds: Now DDT is unavailable to combat a mosquito-borne viral disease that is killing birds by the millions!)

Not only did government regulators underplay scientific evidence of the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, they also failed to appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease. Although DDT is a (modestly) toxic substance, there is a big difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment—as American farmers did before it was banned—and applying it sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects.

Another example of public policy that compromises resilience is opposition to gene-splicing technology, also known as “genetic modification,” or “GM,” applied to agriculture and food production. This technology, which offers superior precision and predictability compared to its predecessors, is unscientifically and grossly over-regulated by the USDA and EPA, and the resulting additional expense to perform field trials with gene-spliced plants causes the technology to be underused by academic and industrial scientists. Worse still, in response to mendacious and irresponsible activism, three California counties have banned entirely the cultivation of plants or seeds improved with these state-of-the-art techniques.

These local jurisdictions have adopted policies that are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk—in other words, they permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques, but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones. These policies ensure the increased use of chemical pesticides and the persistence of these chemicals in the area’s ground and surface water.

Because these policies make fewer options available, they compromise resilience. Prohibitions and the burden of excessive regulation discourage sophisticated genetic approaches to drought and to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phylloxera, powdery mildew, and Pierce’s Disease (a bacterial infestation carried by a leaf-hopping insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter), which threatens California’s multi-billion-dollar wine and table grape industries. In the face of the kinds of droughts that occurred this year in the Midwest and in California during the early 1990s, the availability of drought-resistant crop varieties could spell the difference for farmers between merely a below-average year and a catastrophic one, but flawed, myopic public policy discourages innovation in this direction.

If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental, and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, short-sighted politicians, self-serving bureaucrats, and venal NGOs have conspired to limit those options and to place all Americans in jeopardy.