Avoid Disaster: The Merits of Hindsight in Advance

06/07/2010 02:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In a June 2 interview with the Financial Times, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward openly admitted BP was not prepared for the kind of disaster that has been unleashed on the Gulf. In classically understated form, he said, "What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit."

While the American public expresses their entirely justified, though impotent, rage with BP for causing this horrific tragedy, virtually everyone is asking BP the same question: How can you have no disaster plans in place in the event something like this goes wrong?

BP spokespeople assertively state in television interviews that "we had backups," "we had checks in the system," "we followed the established procedures that have allowed these drill sites to operate safely for years." Such misdirected answers only serve to further enrage us because they essentially say, "This should have worked," rather than fully acknowledging it didn't and that the consequences will cost America, indeed the world, dearly for generations to come.

What we're seeing with BP is a gigantic manifestation of a common pattern I see routinely in human behavior that, in my opinion, people just don't recognize nearly enough. It's a pattern that occurs in corporations and governments, and exists at the level of individual lives as well. Consider these varied examples:

  • A bridge in Minnesota collapsed several years ago and killed unfortunate drivers crossing it. Structural engineers had said many years earlier that a collapse was imminent unless repairs were performed right away. They weren't.
  • More than 50 million Americans poison themselves one cigarette at a time and end up in shocked disbelief when they receive a cancer diagnosis. Their entirely preventable smoking- related diseases cost the health care system, and we who help pay for it, huge sums of money. Furthermore, their untimely deaths cause irreparable harm to those they leave behind.
  • Teens become pregnant without realizing that their freedom to party has changed and their level of responsibility has increased exponentially. When they resent the new restrictions, they harm the well being of their child who is treated as little more than an inconvenience.
  • People spend money they don't have on things they don't need, only to find themselves way behind with no options beyond bankruptcy.
  • Consider yet another huge example: Former President George W. Bush confidently told the country that, "The Iraqi people will welcome us with open arms as liberators. They will celebrate the American people." Great. But...what if they don't?

I can go on giving endless examples of the same destructive pattern. The pattern I'm referring to, if you haven't yet figured it out, is the focus on now to the exclusion of realistically considering what may come later. It's acting without thinking ahead, doing without regard for possible consequences.

What might happen later, for most people, is so far removed as to be invisible and irrelevant. Why? Is it human nature to want what we want without the foresight to realize that what we want can harm us (or somebody else)? Is it simply sloppy thinking that can be retrained to help people better anticipate and extrapolate from current conditions?

As a clinical psychologist, I am routinely dealing with people's life problems. There are many different ways to categorize people's problems, of course, but one way is to distinguish those problems that we had no part in creating from those that we caused ourselves through our lack of foresight. Most of the problems I treat are in the latter category, and I'd be willing to bet that most clinicians would say the same thing. People do things without foresight and then pay the price later in symptoms and misery that just a little bit of forethought would have prevented.

The "philosophy of now" is currently very popular. No surprise, because it emphasizes that "the past is gone, the future hasn't happened yet, so this moment is all there is." It's an unintended consequence and the product of misinterpretation, but too many people absorb the wrong message by taking to heart the idea that the future can't be predicted. They absorb the philosophy that "life is what happens to you when you have other plans" and use it as an excuse to "live for the moment."

The "philosophy of now" discourages planning, discourages detailed consideration of possible consequences for the actions of now, and makes it possible to delay dealing with whatever seems easier to avoid right now. Avoidance of the unpleasant is a poor problem-solving strategy. It's not pleasant to consider what happens if the regulator fails at 5,000 feet below the surface, but it's essential if you want to prevent an environmental disaster of global proportions. It's also essential if you want to resolve tough issues such as global warming, immigration, and just about every other problem you can name.

For the people who suggest we go "back to the old days and old ways," sorry, but that ship has already sailed. New conditions that human beings have never faced before can't be resolved by old strategies. For those who think you can't be too conservative, and liberal is a dirty word, the rules of conservativism can too easily demand conformity to principles of unfettered freedom that cater to companies like BP, willing to sacrifice others in their pursuit of selfish interests.

The view that freedom matters more than responsibility no longer works well in a world where an oil "spill" (a weak little word for a disaster of such huge proportions) or an unregulated industry can unleash a level of damage that can doom us all. For the people who believe you can "drill, baby drill" without ever paying a massive price when human error is inevitable, you should know that anything that has the potential to devastate both people and the planet that relies on human foresight is simply a foolish risk. (Oh, did I mention the radioactive waste water found leaking at the nuclear plant last week?)

The future can't be predicted? Actually, that's not true. Aspects of the future can't be predicted, but a lot of the future can. If you smoke, I can predict your health years from now. If you cheat on your spouse, I can predict what will happen when you get caught. When you abuse your child, I can predict what his or her future will look like.

How can we encourage foresight in people when we only teach them the philosophy of now? The first step is teaching this most basic principle: It's possible to have hindsight in advance.