The ship sinks, the oil spills, the bandwagon rolls. The environmental lobbyists, sniffing a surge of donations, fall over themselves to predict ecological disaster. Fishermen, sniffing compensation, gaze stonily out to sea, lamenting that all is lost. Politicians, sniffing photo-opportunities and votes, order naval ships and helicopters into action. Shipwreck, oil-encrusted seabirds and blackened beaches provide the sort of drama and visuals that television news editors will die for. Yet "disasters" like the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the north-west coast of Spain nearly always turn out to be many degrees less serious than the initial alarm suggests.
Indeed, the alarm itself is often the bigger and more damaging disaster. When the Braer went down off the Shetlands, releasing 85,000 tonnes of crude in 1993, and threatening (by all accounts) a holocaust of otters, the only otter actually killed was run over by a Norwegian television team hurrying to cover the catastrophe. Ecological systems are often more threatened by clean-up detergents than by oil slicks; animals and birds more injured by over-solicitous humans picking them up than by pollution; tourism and fishing more damaged by alarmist reports than by any long-term loss of amenities or stocks. Scientists are nearly always amazed by how quickly nature recovers from major oil spills, including Saddam Hussein's pollution of the Persian Gulf during the war of 1991 (a year later, 177 out of 180 dives revealed no trace of oil), and even including Prince William Sound, Alaska, where the wildlife carnage from the Exxon Valdez truly was enormous in the short term, but where bird populations nevertheless revived eventually.
It is therefore far too early to predict that the Prestige will ruin the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. It is ridiculous for the campaigners to scream that the Prestige cargo was twice the size of Exxon Valdez's, and that the disaster will therefore be twice as big. Everything depends on where the oil goes. The danger is that people will go to the Spanish coast next summer, see nothing amiss and conclude that it was all a false alarm. They may then decide that global warming (which, although not as visible as an oil slick, is potentially far more catastrophic) is a false alarm as well.
None of this is to argue that oil spillage is unimportant (it certainly isn't to the creatures that suffer directly) or that the way oil is transported across the world's oceans is anything other than a disgrace. At least one in six of the world's 1,800 oil tankers was built, like the Prestige, before 1980 (and a few as long ago as the 1950s), often in Japanese shipyards using inferior steel. More than 60 per cent have a single-hull design, even though it has been agreed for several decades that double hulls would give far greater protection against spillage. But shipowners have until 2015 to phase out the single-hull models, by which date most would be due for the scrapyards anyway. This reluctance to challenge the interests of the shipping industry - the shadiest and most rapacious on the planet - is typical of the feeble system of international maritime regulation, with flags of convenience making it almost impossible to enforce even such rules as there are. Reflect that even the shipping companies' deep involvement in terrorism and illegal immigration - the two biggest current western political obsessions - has failed to persuade governments to regulate them adequately. Then ask yourself how likely they are to regulate for the sake of a few thousand birds or a few million prawns.
It would be a good start to establish the principle that the polluter pays. If oil companies had to pick up the bill for major spillages, they might be more choosy about the ships that carry their cargo. But the truth is that oil pollutes routinely and that the 70,000 tonnes on board the Prestige is as nothing compared with the millions of tonnes that get into the sea annually from ordinary activities, such as loading and unloading at ports, and the run-off from cars and industry on land. This low-level contamination is a more serious threat to marine life than the big black slicks because it hangs around on the surface, killing off the plankton that provide food.
If we really care about global ecology, we shall use oil more sparingly, move it around more carefully and, as a result, pay through the nose for it. But the economic and geopolitical priority for all western governments is to secure cheap oil, and plenty of it. That is why we are close to war with Iraq, and why we are so dangerously embroiled in the affairs of the Islamic world. Weep for the guillemots and the gulls by all means, but remember that oil is always dirty and that it always has a price.
Live bodies out, dead bodies in
Living bodies have now been more or less fully exploited. We have seen them in almost every position, performing almost every activity imaginable, nearly always to protests from somebody somewhere. It is time to move on to dead bodies. Our ancestors performed autopsies in public and displayed deceased relatives in their parlours. An art form has been lost, a whole culture forgotten. We should be grateful to Professor Gunther von Hagens who was preparing, as we went to press, to dissect a human body on television, for reminding us of ancient pleasures. Just as artistic advances in the use of the live human body were once resisted by bureaucrats such as the Lord Chamberlain, so an inspector of anatomy now issues prohibitions on use of the dead. Just as some demonstrated against displays of live human skin, so groups now oppose displays of dead human organs. Ignore them. Art must move on.