Social Risks vs. Economic Gains

Sondre Jahr Nygaard
TIK Graduate 2017

Global needs must be taken into consideration when we assess risks concerning economic activity. Extraction of fossil fuels is one such activity that has wide implications. This is a concern of both global inequality and of an inter-generational battle. Today, processes of globalisation make visible the consequences human activity have for us, our neighbours and for future generations.

In order to understand these processes, we need to pick up old theories of risk. In his book Risk Society from 1992, Ulrich Beck anticipates a society of displaced workers with diminishing rights, increasingly concerned with risk handling across boundaries and borders, and growing global inequality.

In a risk society, the modes of production are interlinked with the production of risk. In other words, new technology and innovations do not only produce wealth and value, but also risks. Take digitization as an example. Today, almost all value creation and work processes happen using computers and the Internet. Our power grid is controlled using the Internet, and the administration of the system is centralized. This technology may be a fantastic tool, but it also adds an element of risk that makes us vulnerable in new ways. As we have gained more knowledge of the risks of different industries, it is apparent that also industries that are more traditional have significant consequences associated with them. This means that we are not only paying for our own sins, we need to pay for the sins of our grandparents as well.

According to Beck, the locations of different polluting industries are not random, but are systematically located where the poorest live. The laptop on which I write or the phone that you have in your pocket are most likely powered by lithium-ion batteries. A key material in these batteries is cobalt. Major suppliers of cobalt are located in fragile states of Southern Africa. Here, workers are extracting the material with few safety regulations. Deaths and injuries among workers are common, and the waste that the mines produce is harming the local communities.

Examples of risks as a consequence of the pursuit of economic growth are legion. On April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico outside the coast of Louisiana, an oil well exploded at the Deepwater Horizon platform. This terrible accident marked the beginning of the biggest oil spill in the history of petroleum extraction in the US. The spill continued well into the month of June before the well was closed off. Approximately 3.9 million barrels of oil were released into the sea.

Who pays the price for a catastrophe like this? For one, the company responsible, British Petroleum, has paid an estimated 61 billion dollars in fines. It is not clear, however, whether this amount even comes close to covering the damages to animals and people affected by the spill. Local fishermen could not continue fishing for a long time after the incident, losing their occupation and income. In addition to the spill’s impact on the local economy, the tragedy affected wildlife around the epicentre of the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never recorded more animal deaths in the Gulf of Mexico than after Deepwater Horizon. Protected species that have been exposed to oil die from exhaustion or dehydration, and are more vulnerable to predators. Of the oil that was spilled, only about 25% was cleaned up, leaving the remaining 75% in the ocean and the surrounding shore. The accident had devastating effects on the ecosystem in the Gulf.

Certainly, the catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon makes evident how dangerous these activities are for ecosystems and the humans involved at the local level. Climate change and the dangers associated with it is a similar case that reveals the inequality among people. The greatest polluters are not the same people who face the gravest consequences of climate change, and those who are expected to suffer the most are primarily the poorest people in the world.

The realisation that the pollutant activity we do on a local level also has effects at the global level, changes the way society must handle risks. The question of drilling in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja is not only a question of the potential consequences for the economy or the companies involved. Fishing, tourism and the local environment must be taken into consideration, and the carbon that is produced and spewed into the atmosphere as well. However ‘clean’ the companies claim their production to be, the carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to a warmer world. For what purpose? To serve the privileged few, the greedy people at the top whose moral compasses are non-existent as long as there is a dollar sign in sight. We are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of animals in earth’s history. That is the consequence of our economic activity.

The question is, should we risk it?

Photo: © Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock