Monthly Archives: February 2015

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

Below is a link to the audio of a brief talk I gave at the Environment and Susatinability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in November 2014. It covers the topics of history, environmental catastrophe, everyday life, and most importantly, the democratic deficit in decisions regarding the fate of the world around us. The original text of the talk is also included below.

Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall


Sustainable Cornwall

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

I wish to start with some questions, and to emphasize, as a whole, the idea of sustainability as a question, rather than as an answer to a question:

1. What does it mean to say Cornwall should be sustainable?

2. Whose sustainability are we talking about?

3. Should we be seeking to sustain what we have? (Is it really the best we can imagine?)

Why such queries? Because, I have real problems with the idea of sustainability as something we are searching for in the here and now. Something we should be producing by influencing behaviour or attitudes. I think this ‘project’, if it deserves the name, hides as much as it reveals.

From a critical perspective sustainability can be argued to be a conservative ideology. Keeping things as they are (sustaining the natural or the social world) is very much the project of the rich and powerful. From their perspective things are just fine, and we should keep them going very much as they are. Sustainability promises to stave off change, to do just enough to ameliorate social and environmental catastrophe such that our society’s power relations (especially the class relation) remain the same.

For those of us who desire change, who really want a fundamentally different and more just form of society, sustainability is the enemy. For us any demand for sustainability always comes too late, for the catastrophe is already upon us. Whether it is the global catastrophe of climate change, or the personal catastrophe of foodbank poverty, we already inhabit an apocalypse. Future risks and disasters hold no fear; we are already living with disaster.

Indeed, it is this idea that we already inhabit a catastrophe that I would like to explore now by looking at some of our evidence from an oral history of the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in Cornwall, which took place in 1967. This incident (which is both carefully remembered and carefully forgotten) is of interest not simply as an example of an environmental and social disaster close to ‘home’, but also for the way in which those interviewed about it consistently critiqued and undermined common academic and governmental notions of what sustainability is all about. They point to the reality of modern ‘resilience’, that life under capitalism was, and continues to be, a life of uncertainty, insecurity and risk, in which there is no choice but to be ‘resilient’. More than this, they suggest what is really missing in terms of most discussions of sustainability – radical democracy and revolutionary change.

One of the most striking things about people’s memories of the Torrey Canyon going aground was the importance of fear in the experience. Apart from the smell of the oil, fear was a profound and common memory of the disaster. Unsurprising you might think, but this fear was not, in general, grounded in concerns about damage to the natural environment or risks to human health, as would have been perfectly reasonable. Rather it was grounded in economic insecurity, and the fear that the destruction of Cornwall’s beaches might spell the end of the tourist industry on which many families in Cornwall were increasingly reliant by the 1960s. One interviewee, from St Ives remembered going to the shops for a newspaper and the owner shouting that “we’re finished, we’re finished, the summer is gone”. Others recalled ‘panic’, and ‘overwhelming fear’ that the economic basis of local society was about to collapse.

Such fears partly (but only partly) explain the nature of the response to the incident, the large scale (and excessive) use of toxic detergents to disperse the oil. The use of detergents, as anyone who has followed the results of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or elsewhere, will know was an ecological catastrophe, destroying much of the inshore marine ecology of Cornwall. As there was no extensive baseline ecological research of the shoreline undertaken before 1967, we are still unsure exactly how disastrous this was, or how long-lasting. But many of our interviewees felt the results were profound and permanent.
In short, to save the local tourist economy Cornwall’s coastal ecology was sacrificed on a vast scale. Yet, this deliberate sacrifice was a kind of ‘sustainability’ in action. The key emergency was a social and economic one, and this took priority in terms of the state’s response to the disaster.

Whose sustainability was reproduced in the context of this disaster? That of the local tourist industry for one, but also that of a global oil production and distribution complex. The catastrophic loss of one of the world’s first supertankers led to an international legal effort by the Labour government to recover some of the cost of the clean-up, but the fundamental right of giant corporations such as Barracuda Oil and BP to transport such cargoes at such risk to maritime populations was not, and never has, been challenged.

As such the Torrey Canyon remains a warning of the contradictory consequences of following the dictates of sustainability, without recourse to the democratic question of what one is choosing to sustain. In the end the Cornwall of tourism and large-scale marine transportation was sustained at the expense of local nature, the fishing industry and possibly the health of the local population. This choice was never subject to any democratic right of decision.

And it is important to remember that there was a choice. In France the spill was met with a the use of far less detergent and far more labour to clean oiled oyster beds, which were deliberately protected by the decision to avoid use of dispersants.

Since the Torrey Canyon went aground, we have lived with its consequences. In the short-term much of the oil was dispersed by a combination of the huge human effort to clear the beaches, and natural action. But the material evidences of the disaster remained and were permanent. Our interviewees consistently recalled the way that beaches continued to show the evidence of the disaster through small balls of tar stuck to the bottom of children’s feet. The gutted marine life returned, but slowly, with new and unfamiliar crowds of strangely coloured red seawracks and seaweeds colonising the shoreline.

For others, marine coastal users of various sorts, surf-lifesavers, fishermen and others, there was the memory of all the toxic detergent used to control the impact of the spill and the unknown long-term risks it posed to human and animal well-being. But for many the only available response was to endure. People learned to live with disaster, to forget, even where they remembered, that they lived in an environment permanent transformed by a catastrophe. They were, as they always have to be, resilient, in the face of disaster.

Resilience is the normal, everyday response to catastrophe, the aim to get things back and running as they were. It is a necessary and hopeful response, particularly to those of us who fear for the future of a world that is apparently politically incapable of responding realistically to climate change. Yet, at the same time this resilience poses a political problem. It stood in the way of critical questions being asked about the incident. Why it had taken place? What were its long-term effects?

Most of our interviewees did not respond to the Torrey Canyon by becoming environmental activists or anything like that, though a few did. For many Torrey Canyon was just another, if bigger, marine disaster on Cornwall’s shores, as easily forgotten as it was remembered. One might contrast this to other incidents such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, where local communities in the wake of the catastrophe organised (and continue to organise) for restitution and demanded recognition of the environmental and health impacts of the spill. In Cornwall people were perhaps too resilient, if anything, too willing to go on with life once the immediate fear of economic ruin was past.

Asking Critical Questions
This point is not meant as a criticism of the people of Cornwall. Rather it is a pointer to the ways in which sustainability is as much a political problem as an environmental or social one. Ironically, the Torrey Canyon disaster showed Cornwall to have a very ‘sustainable’ social system. Despite poverty and insecurity, despite an environmental catastrophe of long-lasting consequence, the people of Cornwall got on with living life. Today there are no local movements for environmental justice built around the experience. Some local people found their way into environmental movements, but often cited the later role of organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, rather than the direct effects of the Torrey Canyon as part of this trajectory.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that, hidden deep within our interviews, there were and are still critical questions asked about what sustainability might mean in the context of the Torrey Canyon disaster, but that they are questions that await a proper democratic space in which they might be addressed, or even, for that matter, heard. Take this memory from one of our interviewees.

“To be honest we had never thought about a 100,000 ton tanker running aground. The same with nuclear waste being distributed around the country. It’s just accepted and nothing’s made of it, and you just accept it. We now think, well, moving that amount of oil, is it really a good thing? It’s got to be done, because people need energy, people need heating, warmth, and so on. But there have been a number of ships run aground, oil tankers especially, up in the Orkneys there’s one… Everything’s got to be moved, it’s nice to consider the environment, or you’ve got to consider the environment, but people need heating, people need lighting. But would you prefer to have tankers running around the coast? Or would you prefer wind turbines? Or would you prefer solar panels? I think I’d prefer solar panels to the wind- turbines (laughter)”.

What I love about this response is its intellectual honesty. Its willingness to ask the question that is staring us in the face. What do we want? How do we want to reproduce (or sustain?) our daily lives? Do we want a global oil industry? Or nuclear power? Or windfarms? When you need to consider both the environment and people’s lives what is the right way to go about it?

Yet in the end, as the laughter indicates, we know these questions are a joke. A joke because though we recognise the question, and the problem to be solved, we also recognise that no-one is really going to ask us how to solve it (leave alone allow us the power to decide whether supertankers should be allowed to ply the highseas). That power of decision rests in the hands of transnational global corporations. We know that we have to be resilient, to endure the potentially catastrophic consequences of this condition of things, because we are not offered another choice. We know that there is no democratic mechanism at present capable of allowing people to determine how we make and sustain both people and environment.

Merely asking the right questions doesn’t change these facts, but at least it is a place to start.