The Watchman Rattles - Editorial

The Obama administration two weeks ago approved testing off the southern half of the Eastern Seaboard, clearing the way for oil and gas exploration on the continental shelf between Delaware and Florida. The testing will provide energy companies with data they need to apply for drilling leases that will come available in 2018. It appears a new frontier is opening up for the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth.

If the wisdom of that isn’t questionable in this day and age, the method of testing should be. To find oil and gas, energy companies determine the geologic profile of the ocean floor with seismic surveys that involve towing sonic cannons that send powerful acoustic waves through the water and into the bottom below. It is not new technology; it is used in other parts of the world today. Way back, early oceanographers detonated dynamite to create acoustical images of the Earth’s crust.

Today, though, it is known with some certainty that the use of such loud noises in the ocean is harmful to sea life. Scientists are concerned, for example, of what seismic testing will do to whales and dolphins, which depend on sound to communicate and navigate.

But supporters of oil and gas exploration point to the economic benefits. Offshore oil production will lead to thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for the government. It is for many—polls apparently put the majority of Americans in favor of offshore oil development—a fair and logical trade-off.

How can that be? How can a civilized society ignore the fate of the planet and put the creatures it shares the planet with in jeopardy?

Rebecca Costa, author of “The Watchman’s Rattle,” has an idea of why that is.

The title of Ms. Costa’s book refers to the watchmen of an earlier time who used a rattle to warn their communities of danger. And Ms. Costa makes no bones about it; the world is in danger.

Her premise is that civilizations fail when the world becomes too complicated to comprehend. When that happens, she says, beliefs take over for knowledge.

She points to the Mayans, whose civilization thrived for 3,000 years and then all but disappeared in a mere 100 years. She argues that, faced with environmental challenges beyond their ability to cope, they turned to beliefs.

Their knowledge overwhelmed, they turned to appeasing the gods, which ultimately led to human sacrifices.

She argues that we are on a similar pattern of decline. We are overwhelmed by the pace of change and the complexity of our technological world and we are turning more and more toward belief systems over logic to find solutions. One of those beliefs, she says, is extreme economics, or too much focus on the financial bottom line, as though everything can be explained by a business model. But a solution that benefits mankind does not always fit accepted economic models.

The state of the economy and jobs are, of course, of vital concern to all of us. But the economy is only one measure, among many, of human health. It is not a good sign when we give it more weight than it deserves.

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