The odd paranoia generated by these buffoons might just be written off as another human foible that adds a comedic footnote to history, but it’s actually indicative of a significant problem that impacts many segments of society – the unfortunate but perpetual failure of average citizens to properly understand risk. We think we know what is truly risky, but we really don’t. We are swayed by headlines that play on our worst fears, spending countless hours worrying about the most unlikely of events while exposing ourselves continuously to truly harmful things without a second thought.
These irrational fears have not only been responsible for piles of damaged clowns, but are also responsible for blocking billions of dollars of pipeline construction. That’s because the population has developed an irrational fear of them thanks to successful anti-pipeline marketing. But it’s important to remember in the pipeline debates that this is a human trait that’s reflected in the pipeline stance but not only there, it’s everywhere.
Examples are boundless, but to name a few: A significant number of people are afraid of flying, yet have no qualms about driving even though it is statistically more dangerous. Further still, walking or biking is more dangerous than driving, and far more so than flying, yet who is afraid of those things?
In the dull beige suburbs of North America, people walk up to their front doors, unlock them, rush in, and relock the door immediately behind as if the tranquil streets are about to be invaded by hordes of serial killers or starving wolverines. The invasions seldom happen. Eventually, homeowners emerge in their cars and head out into traffic while often as not checking messages on their phones. And the traffic they drive into is full of other drivers checking their phones. And their odds of getting killed are thousands of times greater than any harm that would ever befall them if their house were built on top of Keystone XL.
Imagined risk swamps real risk, every time. It has for centuries, long before even the dark days when “witches” were burned at the stake. Every day we voluntarily expose ourselves to truly deadly things with no concern whatsoever, while being terrified of things whose chance of happening is practically, if not literally, zero.
And so it goes with pipelines. People are afraid to have one near them, because they read that they are deadly, or that a spill is inevitable, or that the oil within is abrasive, or that they will destroy the environment, or whatever. The fact that pipelines are the safest way to move the petroleum substances we require every day does not register at all. In fact it’s the opposite. The Toronto Globe and Mail recently ran an article about crude oil railway loading facilities under construction. Now, keep in mind that a pipeline spill might be a mess and a big environmental headache, but injuries are incredibly rare. Crude by rail, on the other hand, is directly responsible for the tragic Lac Megantic explosion where nearly 50 people were killed.
The Globe article creates a ridiculous mental parallax, distorting perspective and completely downplaying the scale of this disaster with the jaw-dropping observation that “While there are lingering questions about the safety of transporting vast quantities of oil on Canada’s railways, trains offer advantages compared with pipelines.” There are no “lingering concerns” about crude by rail transport in Lac Megantic; those poor people were given a very harsh lesson in what true risk is all about. Yet a major paper like the Globe and Mail gets things absolutely backwards simply because it chooses to parrot the most common fears regardless of whether there is any truth to them or not. Questioning the safety of pipelines is now as sensible as staying in after dark, even though pipelines will never hurt you and there is nothing inherently dangerous about darkness.
Some elements of society argue that pipelines are indeed dangerous because of the damage they promote to the environment by either condoning fossil fuel usage or through potential spills. But even that argument fades if one looks at the situation in its totality – it’s only oil pipelines that create fear, not natural gas or gasoline, despite the fact that the latter two can move your house to a new neighborhood in seconds. Natural gas pipelines are given a free ride because they transport a relatively clean fuel, meaning that no one takes the time to scare the public about them. As such, natural gas pipelines are treated indifferently even though they can do more damage than Mike Tyson.
Puncture a high pressure one (don’t worry suburbia, your streets are laced with low pressure lines), of which there are over 300,000 miles worth in the US alone, and you will be blown sky high. Even rupturing one of the millions of miles of low-pressure lines, which most likely lie under your lawn and could be tapped easily in a DIY landscaping project, will give you a not-insignificant explosive fire hazard.
Yet again then is a display of the twisted perception of risk. Cities everywhere are switching to “clean fuels” and winning acclaim for it, despite the fact that the transportation systems are bomb-like. Environmentalists have people terrified of oil pipelines because some oil might get in some water somewhere.
Sadly, tyrants and swindlers throughout history, playing on the weakest of human fears, have made excellent use of the phenomenon. Pity the clowns; both literal professional ones and the pipeline company figurative ones. Both are being penalized by a quirk of human nature that is exceedingly difficult to counter. One camp may eventually defuse the situation with humour but sadly the other likely does not have that capacity.
Failure to properly assess risk is a sad but near-universal problem. We need to keep that in mind when apparently irrational behavior drives us crazy when we try to build things; the resistance is more to do with well-orchestrated fear campaigns than the risk of the activity itself. The battle lines should be drawn accordingly.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here