Disaster in the Gulf: Making Sure it Never Happens Again

Carolyn Lewis, who served on the national commission that investigated the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear-plant accident, was asked last week by the Wall Street Journal to comment on the Gulf oil spill. "I hear echoes of the earlier disasters because the technology, once again, is monumental and complex," observed Lewis, now a retired associate dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. In both cases, Lewis said, the technology was supposed to be "fail safe."

Haven't we learned by now that there is no such thing as fail-safe technology? Further, it seems that our efforts to make technologies failsafe are ultimately futile.

I'm reminded of a report I heard some years ago on National Public Radio. An NPR reporter was interviewing a safety expert about the cause of a terrible airplane crash that had just occurred with great loss of life. The expert, as I recall, had retired from the Federal Aviation Administration where he had been the top safety official. The reporter asked how such an awful accident could happen given today's technological prowess.

The expert explained that when a technical malfunction occurs we respond by designing and installing a new system to correct the flaw. Everything works fine for awhile unless and until this new system malfunctions and causes yet another accident. (Murphy's Law applies here; if something can go wrong, it will.) Then we've got to correct this new flaw by installing yet another new system. This goes on and on until we have systems piled on top of systems piled on top of systems. Ultimately the whole shebang exceeds human understanding and evades human control.

Now I imagine that we will probably find and fix whatever technical malfunction caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion. But this is no way to make sure it never happens again. To do this, we must change course.

We can start by recognizing that ever-increasing complexity is not in our best interests.

Mind you, I'm deeply aware that increasing complexity has benefited society in many ways for thousands of years. Certainly, as societies develop there is a very high return on investment in complexity. But in The Collapse of Complex Societies, author Joseph Tainter argues that a time comes when the returns from additional complexity begin to diminish and ultimately turn negative.

For example, investing in oil drilling when large supplies were readily accessible paid off in spades. But now most of the readily accessible deposits have been used. The remaining deposits are difficult to find and exploit. The endeavor requires ever-larger investments in, among other things, more complex technology and systems. At some point, this becomes unmanageable.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand this (although, come to think of it, the Challenger disaster is yet another example of complex systems gone haywire). Say there's a crisis erupting, like the one we have at present, and you ask a simple question like "Who's in charge?" Instead of an answer you'll get a lot of finger pointing - just what we're getting now as we struggle to assign responsibility for the oil spill.

In an overly complex setting, it turns out nobody's in charge; nobody's responsible for mistakes.

There is an alternative to excess complexity: make things simpler through decentralization.

This is not a pipe dream. In the field of energy, for example, there's the huge untapped potential of distributed generation, whereby energy is produced on-site for use on-site. Distributed generation relies on fairly simple micropower devices like solar roofs and small scale wind turbines. These are systems humans can comprehend and control. But are they viable, that is, presently available, practical, reliable, and affordable? Thankfully, the answer is yes.

"Over 20 prestigious studies released in the last 28 months show that commercially-available energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies can meet all of the world's and the United States' energy growth without fossil fuels (petroleum and coal) and nuclear energy," states Scott Sklar, who runs The Stella Group, Ltd, a Washington, DC based energy analysis firm.

One of these is Clean Energy 2030, a report by Google.org, which describes a strategy for weaning the U.S. off of coal and oil for electricity generation by 2030 (with some remaining use of natural gas as well as nuclear) and cutting oil use for cars by 44%. The report outlines a time-line for this transition and shows how costs will be offset with real economic gains. "We can build whole new industries and create millions of new jobs," Google declares. "We can cut energy costs, both at the gas pump and at home. We can improve our national security. And we can put a big dent in climate change."

To this laudable agenda, I would add that transitioning to smaller-scale technology is our best hope for making sure that such large-scale technological disasters never happen again.