Michael Blum and the trouble with Deepwater

As Andrew Zolli points out in his introduction to speaker Michael Blum, you cannot talk about failure in 2010 without talking about the Gulf oil spill. Blum, a professor of ecology at Tulane, was at the frontlines of both the spill and the clean-up efforts. For better or worse, so were 47,000 other people. Lacking a clear leader, the volunteers, BP suits, contractors and federal workers were often at odds with how best to handle the situation.

Mike Blum

Blum gave a measured breakdown of the failures that caused the accident: operational failure (inappropriate drilling practices); organizational failure (lack of clear management); and technical failure (the fail-safes failed and set the stage for additional failure.) The response effort was using methodologies that had been used in previous oil spills, which were unsuccessful because all of the previous spills had been shallow water spills. The Deepwater Horizon leak was over a mile beneath the sea.

The true failure, in Blum’s opinion, is that of separating the “built” world from the “natural” world. The interconnectedness of these two environments, often regarded as disparate, has been a running theme at PopTech this year. Blum suggests that in order to better handle these types of events, our response needs to couple these two worlds, not contrast them.

New Orleans culture, offers Blum, is one of resilience. The city exists at the delta of the Mississippi river and as such, its fate is intricately intertwined with that of the natural world. “Whether its future is one of decline or of celebration,” said Blum, “is entirely up to us.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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