Among the bits of conventional wisdom with which I am at odds (see: William Hung was perfectly in tune) is the concept that Donald Rumsfeld was speaking gobbledygook when he referenced "unknown unknowns - things we do not know we don't know."
The phrase makes perfect sense, grammatically, syntactically and conceptually. And as word comes that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is now officially the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history (we're #1!), it's an important concept to bear in mind. Because it's now clear "we" did not know how little "we" knew about what to do when the unthinkable happens.
What's clear is that industries' assurances to our government, and the latter's assurances to the public, about the failsafe nature of a huge, potentially dangerous and landscape-altering form of energy generation are no longer to be taken without several million grains of salt.
And yes, I'm looking at you, nuclear power. As Obama says he was wrong in his belief that "the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios," why would we now grant such a a benefit of the doubt to those in charge of an even more potentially devastating industry?
To date I still have heard no satisfactory explanation of how, even in the best-case scenario, we're supposed to permanently store or eliminate the burgeoning tons of nuclear waste generated by this technology. And in any scenario less than the best-case, if anything goes wrong, we could be talking about an unstoppable amount of contamination of our environment and our children's bodies that would easily outpace this current record-holder.
It's grimly amusing that the solution that, as of this writing, seems to be working to staunch the flow of oil is essentially mud. It invites comparison with another huge, landscape-altering structure built largely of mud, and whose function is to staunch a flow: the world's largest beaver dam, more than half a mile wide - visible, in fact, from space.
The dam, which scientists estimate has been worked on by successive generations of beavers since the 1970s, was unknown to us until recently because it's in a remote, "virtually inaccessible" area of Alberta, Canada; it was found via satellite photos. The dam, and the beavers' ability to pull it off, was an unknown unknown.
"They're re-engineering the landscape," the ecologist responsible for the find noted, and it's worth pointing out that the beavers who embarked on this project and passed it down to younger generations, have knocked down a pillar of human anthropocentrism - the notion that we're the only animal who has successfully re-engineered the landscape on such a massive scale.
Don't worry, we're still out in front in one area: With the BP oil spill alone we've managed to kill more animals and destroy more habitat than the beavers could ever hope to.
Maybe it's time to slow down our ever-expanding dominance of the planet and see if there's something we could learn from those beavers. We may not yet know what it is we need to learn.
If, on the other hand, we continue on our present course, especially increasing the number of oil wells and nuclear power plants, we should not be surprised by a future incident that gives us yet another dismal "#1" record.