A controlled burn of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, May 19

David Brooks has a good column today on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sums up a significant problem my last post touched on: modern life is made possible by various complicated technological-bureaucratic systems. And these things can go south rather quickly and surprisingly. Part of the problem is that they’re complex, and not managed well. That’s par for the course. But the tricky thing is our collective expectations: we (and often the people running them) expect them to just work, and our expectations are way wrong:

Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As [Malcolm] Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This is about right. But not exactly. The problem is not just technology, or human nature. It also includes nature and the earth itself – the ultimate complex system, and one that Brooks conspicuously omits. Our wondrous technology interacts with the biosphere, atmosphere and geological features in countless ways we don’t understand. And that creates some obvious problems, such as too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or massive amounts of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not just that our own systems are complicated: we also make assumptions about the manageability of natural forces that are virtually unmanageable. Dave Roberts addressed this a couple of days ago:

Once we know that accidents can be catastrophic and irreversible, it becomes clear that there is no margin of error. We’re operating a brittle system, unable to contain failure and unable to recover from it. Consider how deepwater drilling will look in that new light.

The thing is, we’re already operating in those circumstances in a thousand different ways — it’s just that the risks and the damages tend to be distributed and obscured from view. They’re not thrust in our face like they are in the Gulf. We don’t get back the land we destroy by mining. We don’t get back the species lost from deforestation and development. We don’t get back islands lost to rising seas. We don’t get back the coral lost to bleaching or the marine food chains lost to nitrogen runoff. Once we lose the climatic conditions in which our species evolved, we won’t get them back either.

There’s another problem with a focus on manmade “complex systems.” No matter how descriptively accurate that may be, the term can all too easily be used as a shield against accountability. If our way of life depends on systems that are simply “too complex for any single person to understand,” as Brooks puts it, then nobody is truly responsible when they go south. Or at least, the people who are or should be responsible have a handy excuse. It’s really quite perverse when you think about it: we already wrongly blame “natural disasters” for manmade failures like the New Orleans levee collapses. Now, if there’s no proximate natural cause, we can blame “complex systems.” As T/S’s Nancy Miller noted in a comment on my earlier post:

On Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, everyone spoke of the financial meltdown of the past few years as a “perfect storm” — a term meant to deflect blame. It’s very much parallel to blaming the flooding in New Orleans on a “natural disaster” rather than deeply flawed human behavior.

We usually find out immediately after disaster strikes that there are all kinds of obvious, and eminently solvable, problems that set the stage for it. Brooks’s prescriptions (a more mature approach to understanding risks and decision-making to compensate for people’s tendency toward over-optimism) are good as far as they go. But we should also grapple with the flight from accountability that plays a major role in giant disasters. If the “complexity excuse” becomes the standard explanation for CEOs and political leaders, we’re in for rocky ride.

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