Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reducing Vulnerabilities: "The Next Catastrophe"

Yale sociologist Charles Perrow has a new book coming out entitled The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial and Terrorist Disasters, published by the Princeton University Press.

Perrow's splendid 1984 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, explored the idea of catastrophic accidents that are inevitable in tightly coupled and complex systems. He theorized that once systems reach a certain level of complexity, failures will occur in multiple ways that are virtually impossible to predict. Much of what Perrow says in this sample chapter of his new book bears directly on climate change adaptation:

"...Two of the major themes in this work are the inevitable failure of organizations, public and private, to protect us from disasters and the increasing concentration of targets that make the disasters more consequential. There are many explanations for the first theme, organizational failures, but we will highlight one in particular: organizations are tools that can be used for ends other than their official ones. To prevent unwarranted use, we require regulation in the private sector and representative governance in the public sectors. The failure of the political system means ineffective regulation. This can be changed.

"One goal of regulation is to prevent the accumulation of economic power in private hands. Otherwise, we get the concentration not just of economic power but of hazardous materials, populations in risky areas with inadequate protection, and vulnerabilities in parts of our critical infrastructure such as the Internet, electric power, transportation, and agriculture. (We also need regulation to ensure that the public sector is not wasteful, that standards are adequate to protect us, that corruption is minimized, and so on.) The third major theme concerns a structural alternative to the concentrations that endanger us. We encounter it first in the electric power grid and second in the Internet; these are networked systems, rather than hierarchical systems. Networks are decentralized, with minimal concentrations of destructive energy and economic power. They are efficient, reliable, and adaptive, which minimizes the dangers of organizational failures. In the grid and the Internet, they are being challenged by consolidating forces, but these can be resisted. We explore the advantages of networks in the final chapter, where we examine networks of small firms, and terrorist networks."

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