I have found it difficult to write for my blog this week. Maybe it’s because the good weather outside of our Maine cottage beckons or maybe I am a bit depressed by everything going on these days. I’m still thinking about the implications of the Gulf spill. In spite of the zillions of words written about it the situation seems pretty stark and can be largely captured by just a few sentences.
1. It’s crazy to drill for oil in places where a blowout, however unlikely, would cause great harm.
2. It’s crazy to let companies like BP or any other operate without constant monitoring. No matter how well meaning they are, they operate out of the wrong mindset, believing that they are in control. It’s just the way technology-based companies always act.
3. It’s crazy to assume that anyone can understand all the things that can go wrong even with the most sophisticated computers available. Complex systems like the oil exploration rig sitting on the surface of the sea attached by a pipe to the bottom of that sea with a crew of human operators in charge running a system designed by other human beings always have behavior possibilities the models can’t predict.
4. It’s crazy to believe what anyone says in the aftermath of a major accident. Maybe it’s best to act like Chicken Little and assume the sky is falling and act accordingly.
5. It’s crazy to expect that things will return to the same normalcy as before the accident. Once complex system jump into a new regime, they are likely to stay there in spite of massive efforts to return to the old state.
6. It’s crazy to seek the responsible parties that caused the disaster. Complex systems fail as systems, not because any single person does a bad thing. Maybe someone can be found to be a trigger, but it is always the system that fails. If anyone is to be made responsible it is the one that decided to drill in the first place, or allowed the company to drill. Once the system was in place, its failure cannot be attributed to a single action. Did the o-rings cause the Challenger accident or was it the decision to launch that day or…?
7. It’s crazy to believe that anyone in government or elsewhere can now design or permit or operate such a system that is, using the phrase of the day, too big to fail. It’s not that they are materially too big to fail (it’s just the opposite; they are already complex and intrinsically capable of unforeseen malfunctions), it is that the consequences of failure are too much for the world or whatever is impacted to bear. After systems become complex, they are always prone to unexpected failures. The only way to avoid the possibility of failures is not to build the systems in the first place or to keep them simple enough that they are understandable by humans as well as computers.
8. It’s crazy to assume we know what to do when a Katrina or Gulf blowout happens. Everything else about the blowout sends a message that we don’t really know what to do when an event like this happens. Fixing a complex system is itself a complex task. All the plans cannot anticipate the reality that has to be faced. Find somebody responsible for the messes involved in cleaning up is as futile as finding the one who caused the accident. The line between incompetence and simply being at the mercy of the system is very fine.
9. It’s crazy to believe that we can put a price on nature and on human suffering.
With a few changes in the wording, you can describe the collapse of any complex system in these same terms. Instead of oil exploration and BP, substitute Lehman Brothers and the financial system. Nassim Taleb, who I wrote about in a recent blog, says many of these same things in his [ten rules](http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5d5aa24e-23a4-11de-996a-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1) for dealing with black swans, his metaphor for rare, but disastrous, events like the blowout.
Sustainability, as manifest by flourishing, involves rebuilding the world socio-economic system which is now too big to fail, in the sense that it is so big that we, the world, cannot afford to let it collapse or undergo a major regime change (to use another phrase of the moment). If that were to happen, all of our established institutions and systems for taking care of ourselves would likely fail or become ineffective. Unlike the recent economic collapse, there is no Treasury or Federal Reserve to start up the printing presses and pour money into the system. Attempts at averting a regime change in the global climate system and the subsequent impacts illustrate what happens when nobody can metaphorically print money to prime the pump. Basically, nothing happens. There is so much to learn from the financial collapse and the blowout that can move the possibility of sustainability up a notch, but gets lost in the the rush to assign blame and find the quick fix.