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When Failure Becomes Possible: A Lesson From The Deepwater Horizon

by Adam Frank
Jun 2, 2010

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Adam Frank

Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

This quote comes from a fine piece by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times last week on Americans and our faith in technological fixes.

Two weeks ago I put up a post on the gusher addressing what I called "The Limits of Control." With the failure this weekend of BP's "top kill" plan to staunch the unchecked flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it's worth a moment to revisit the issue and its deeper implication.

The Times piece continued:

In the beginning of May, a few weeks after the rig explosion, the Pew Research Center asked 994 Americans about the oil spill: 55 percent saw it as a major environmental disaster, and 37 percent as a serious problem. But at that time, at least, 51 percent also believed that efforts to prevent the spill from spreading would be successful. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil later, federal officials last week released a new estimate of the spill — 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day — establishing it as the largest in American history. As Richard Feynman, the physicist, once observed, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." Sometimes ingenuity may not help us.

This country was built with astonishing acts of engineering and remarkable leaps of science. In that sense we have led the world with our "its possible" attitude and ambitions.  Taken as a whole, this has been a good thing and defined us as a people.  But, as I have argued before, we are entering a new and different age which will require something more than naive technological boosterism.

If the experience of the Exxon Valdez is any guide, the extent of distaster in the Gulf will not be fully understood for some while.  In the meantime we watch and shake our heads and ask ourselves "Can't someone do something?" The short answer for the short term appears to be "no."

Interviews with the head of the Coast Guard have made it clear - the people who could do the problem solving, the only ones with the technology to work on petrochemical facilities a mile under the sea - are the ones who have failed.  There simply is no simple technological fix for the technological fix we have gotten ourselves into.

In this way the Deepwater Horizon is cautionary tale of two cultures: the one we are in and the one we need to build.

The old culture did not need to see itself embedded in a framework of planetary systems. It could muscle its way out of any problem with bigger machines and more fantastic science.

The new culture will need to use its science and its technology in different ways, understanding the complexity of natural systems like the oceans, atmosphere and biosphere.

In the old culture failure was impossible because, somehow, we could grab some duct tape and MacGyver our way back into business. The new culture must understand that limits and feedbacks express a kind of planetological wisdom that we are wise to work within rather than try and push aside.

As a technological society we have evolved to the point that we are, literally, playing in much deeper waters.  At these scales we must understand that failure is very much an option.

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