Last month’s oil spill in the East China Sea has produced the greatest ecological disaster to hit East Asia. The East China Sea spill is only surpassed in the history of oil spills by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a catastrophe from which the ecosystem is still far from recovering.
The collision of a Panamanian tanker, carrying Iranian petroleum, and the Chinese cargo ship CF Crystal on January 6 released almost a million barrels of condensate, an acutely toxic chemical that is highly volatile.
Condensate spreads quickly and is much harder to contain than crude. It spreads with water currents, exposing all marine organisms in its path. Never has such a large amount of condensate been released into the environment. It will kill or poison a wide range of marine animals, moving far beyond the expanding oil spill in the East China Sea.
If we combine this disaster with the degradation of the biosphere brought about by warming oceans, the acidification of seawater and overfishing, we are confronted with a catastrophe.
Yet you would never guess that anything had ever happened from reading the newspapers in Korea and Japan, let alone those of the United States and China. The overwhelming focus has been on the PyeongChang Olympics, with a few words about a nuclear threat from North Korea thrown in here and there. Even the antics of Donald Trump seem to be far more important than this devastating spill.
As of this moment, I have not seen any advisories about eating seafood products, and the governments of Korea and Japan have not established rigorous inspection regimes for marine produce.
For that matter, a keyword search of Jeju Island’s leading newspapers Halla Ilbo and Jeju Ilbo revealed almost no articles about the risks posed by this disaster. Newspapers in Okinawa and Kyushu, the regions likely to suffer the most serious consequences, had more reports, but they were incidental and not investigative.
Denial and distraction are not going to make this catastrophe go away. There is a serious risk that hundreds of thousands of people will be subject to tremendous health risks from contaminated seafood, and from contaminated water. Entire fishing communities will be economically devastated, and their inhabitants will be in danger.
We do not have much time to end this taboo. It is time for Korea, Japan, China and the entire international community to come together and to talk honestly about how we will clean up this disaster and how the ecosystem will be restored over the next few decades. That process will require close cooperation and the development of new technologies and new treatments. We will have to work together, as a team, to assure the safety and health of residents in the areas immediately affected, and to tell the region honestly how they will be impacted.
This oil spill, more than the North Korean nuclear weapons program, is shaping up to be a major security issue for the region that will require hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more.
It is essential that we put together a comprehensive plan to respond to this oil spill quickly and implement it rapidly and systematically. We must use scientific means to assess the dangers and to give reliable information to the world.
We need global cooperation to come up with a solution for the short term, the medium term and the long term. We must bring together players from government, research and industry in all the nations impacted to formulate and to implement a response. We also need citizens to be involved in the process, both providing information to experts and paying close attention to expert opinions and to other information related to the oil spill.
In the long term, we must strengthen regulations concerning the shipping of petroleum products. Most importantly, we must recognize that this tragedy was unnecessary and that we must quickly end the use of such dangerous fossil fuels that kill tens of thousands in Asia, not only through oil spills, but through air pollution.
This effort requires a literal revolution in the nature of government. Government around the world is increasingly weak, responding primarily to the demands of corporations, not citizens. Governments lack the expertise for analysis, and also are unable to carry out long-term plans. Politicians are only interested in the next election. Academics are forced by evaluation systems to spend their time writing for obscure academic publications and are discouraged from interacting with the public, or with government officials, who most need their help.
Citizens are distracted from facts by social media and by entertainment that has blocked out real news. We wander around blinded by a forest of electronic stimuli that induces impulsive purchases and indulges the grotesque cult of self. There is no space left for serious contemplation of the future of our Earth.
Will the United Nations handle this crisis? I would not hold my breath. The U.N. was not permitted to play a role in the clean-up after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. And it has not been able to handle much else over the past few decades. Its funding has been cut and it is made into a beggar for budgets, not a leader in ethical campaigns.
There was no power on Earth capable of telling BP to turn over its platform and clear out of the way so that the Deepwater Horizon leak could be handled by experts selected on the basis of their objectivity. The entire world watched the Gulf of Mexico destroyed, but no one could compel BP to do anything. In effect, there was no government.
So how will we respond to this threat? Will we just stare at our cell phones, slurp cafe lattes with our friends and discuss our vacation plans? Will we play stupid, as our children are poisoned by unknown chemicals in fish? Will we obsess over frivolous matters while the oceans die, forests turn to deserts, societies collapse into anomie and neighbors become indifferent strangers?
Maybe, just maybe, this catastrophe, combined with similar catastrophes around the world, will force us to reinvent the concept of citizenship, and of government. Perhaps we can start to consider ourselves as citizens of the Earth who have a responsibility to act.
Perhaps this terrible challenge will force us to work together and thereby affirm what a community is, and what a government is, in a positive and meaningful sense. Perhaps we can establish something beyond global governance, a form of “Earth management” that addresses our relationship to the entire Earth.
Governance is necessary, on a global scale, if we want to respond to the terrible damage inflicted on our planet by unlimited development. All actions must be assessed in terms of long-term impact on our environment, and our primary concern must be the well-being of the people.
The stock market should not have any impact on the formulation of policy in response to this oil spill, or to any ecological crisis. If anything, the government should be empowered to restrict the functions of the stock market so as to encourage, and to force, a rapid move away from our dangerous dependence on fossil fuel.
This oil spill is about the mistakes of the crew only in the most limited sense. The dangers of transporting petroleum, and the negative impact on our environment of emissions, have been known for decades. The solution is a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels supported by extensive funding from the government, and strict rules that will require high levels of efficiency and insulation, and demand the immediate elimination of automobiles that employ petroleum.
We need to change not only how we invest our money and plan our economy but also to reform our culture and our habits. Consumption and growth can no longer be the standards by which we determine success. The addiction to petroleum, the advertising to encourage people to purchase automobiles, and the massive investment in highways at the expense of other welfare programs must be questioned as part of our larger response to the oil spill.
Finally, we must face the painful truth that the expensive hardware that our militaries have procured is useless in addressing this oil spill, or other environmental disasters such as spreading deserts and rising seas. We must redefine “security” decisively for our age and move beyond the limited and the confrontational concept of “alliance.” We must embrace the U.N. charter in its true spirit and transform our militaries into transparent and effective parts of society that address real security threats. The foremost threat, according to scientific inquiry, is climate change.
One organization that could play a critical role in coordinating our response to the East China Sea oil spill is the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) in Seoul. The TCS is the sole organization run jointly by the governments of the China, Japan and Korea. The secretariat has proven itself to be extremely effective under the leadership of Secretary-General Lee Jong-heon and has played a critical role in coordinating policy.
This crisis, however, will take that role to a new level. We need an environmental assessment program for water and air quality, and long-term biological monitoring. But they can also work together to increase vessel traffic risk assessment and predict hazardous crossing areas. A whole range of vessel traffic control improvements and improved response protocols should be discussed.
We must enhance and organize the cooperation between governments, between research institutes, between NGOs, and between citizens in Asia to respond to this massive oil spill.
Moreover, this project can be seen not as a temporary step, but rather the next stage of Earth management aimed at the response to climate change and environmental degradation on a global scale. We will be creating new paradigms for universal application: for how to break down a complex problem into parts and assign it to experts from fields such as engineering, biology, demographics, oceanography, statistics and politics.
But we must explain what our response to the oil spill is for citizens and give them a compelling ethical motivation to contribute to the effort. That will require experts in philosophy, ethics, history, art, and literature. We will need artists to make compelling representations of this otherwise abstract disaster and writers to compose compelling phrases.
We will need to rebuild communities, to help fishermen whose communities are devastated, and to resettle people. That requires budgets, but it also requires moral courage and self-sacrifice. Let us pull the region, and the world, together to address this crisis properly and give humanity some hope.