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Gulf oil spill disaster latest example in list of technological blunders

As the events surrounding the disastrous Gulf oil spill have continued to unfold in recent weeks, it has caused some of us to give pause and wonder if something similar could occur in our own industry.

Then, during a drive through southwest Georgia just days ago, I realized that something similar already has occurred in agriculture, just maybe not on the same epic scale.

Rounding a curve and driving uphill towards a cotton field, the first thing I noticed were the long, spindly tops of the plants, having reached such a height that they were leaning as the wind blew. This wasn’t cotton — it was Palmer amaranth pigweed.

As I reached level ground and had a broader view of the entire field, it became obvious that it wasn’t just a weed here and there. The entire field was dotted with the weeds, and for the most part they appeared to be beyond any chemical controls.

So how can this be compared with the Gulf oil spill? As a recent report from the Associated Press points out, the mess in the Gulf of Mexico is just the latest in an increasingly long list of technological misfires.

And this is not an indictment of the technology itself. The problem lies more in the union of the technology with human fallibility.

The article cites a litany of disasters in addition to the oil spill, including the space shuttle explosions, bridge collapses, and levees that fail. The common thread, it says, is the arrogance and hubris bred by so much of our technology today. Add to this the human weaknesses of avoidance, greed and sloppiness, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The chairman of the presidential commission on the oil spill — William Reilly — said early on he couldn’t help but point out something that he had already noticed. The technology to clean up after an oil spill “is primitive,” Reilly said. “It’s wholly disproportionate to the tremendous technological advances that have allowed deepwater drilling to go forward. It just hasn’t kept pace.”

Now, think about the parallels of the oil spill to the current issue of gyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed. Once the glyphosate-resistant technology had been developed and then accepted and used by a majority of Southeastern cotton producers, there wasn’t much talk about the dire consequences of overusing or misusing it. Then, when problems did begin to occur, what solutions were available? Some that would be considered primitive by today’s standards, including hand weeding. Certainly the cure was disproportionate to the advances that enabled farmers to spray a broad-spectrum herbicide over-the-top of cotton.

It also was noted that government regulations had not kept pace with the oil industry’s technology, and the industry itself had not made sufficient progress in how it assesses and works the risk of catastrophic damage from spills.

Disasters will keep on happening, says Rutgers University professor Lee Clarke, author of the book Worst Cases. In the future, he warns, watch out for problems with the U.S. power grid, Sacramento levee failures, flood protection problems along coastal cities and even some of the newest high-tech airplanes.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to get anybody to listen over the buzz of a new technological wonder. And Americans in general are very reactive about disasters, says Clarke.

People don't think about them until afterward, he said, and then they say, “You should have seen that coming.”

New technology is on the horizon that’ll help solve, or at least contain, the problem of resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed in row-crop production. But if we don’t learn from lessons of the past, it’ll just be another case of exhausting the usefulness of the newest technology and waiting for the even-newer one to rescue us.

It’s simply human nature, and we’ve all experienced it to one degree or another. Very few of us who work on a computer each day have not been stung by a “crash” that causes us to lose some or all of our data. We certainly knew the possibility of this occurring existed, and we were probably warned to save our information on an external disk. But we didn’t. For some reason, we placed our trust in something as impersonal as technology, and we’ll likely commit the same mistake again at some time in the future.


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