Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thinking about disaster

Charles Perrow is a very talented sociologist who has put his finger on some of the central weaknesses of the American social-economic-political system.  He has written about corporations (Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism), technology failure (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies), and organizations (Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay).  (Here is an earlier post on his historical account of the corporation in America; link.) These sound like very different topics -- but they're not, really.  Organizations, power, the conflict between private interests and the public good, and the social and technical causes of great public harms have been the organizing themes of his research for a very long time.

His current book is truly scary.  In The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters he carefully surveys the conjunction of factors that make 21st-century America almost uniquely vulnerable to major disasters -- actual and possible.  Hurricane Katrina is one place to start -- a concentration of habitation, dangerous infrastructure, vulnerable toxic storage, and wholly inadequate policies of water and land use led to a horrific loss of life and a permanent crippling of a great American city.  The disaster was foreseeable and foreseen, and yet few effective steps were taken to protect the city and river system from catastrophic flooding.  And even more alarming -- government and the private sector have taken almost none of the prudent steps after the disaster that would mitigate future flooding.

Perrow's analysis includes natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the electric power transmission infrastructure, and the Internet -- as well as the threat of deliberate attacks by terrorists against high-risk targets.   In each case he documents the extreme risks that our society faces from a combination of factors: concentration of industry and population, lax regulation, ineffective organizations of management and oversight, and an inability on the part of Congress to enact legislation that seriously interferes with the business interests of major corporations even for the purpose of protecting the public.

His point is a simple one: we can't change the weather, the physics of nuclear power, or the destructive energy contained in an LNG farm; but we can take precautions today that significantly reduce the possible effects of accidents caused by these factors in the future. His general conclusion is a very worrisome one: our society is essentially unprotected from major natural disasters and industrial accidents, and we have only very slightly increased our safety when it comes to preventing deliberate terrorist attacks.
This book has been about the inevitable inadequacy of our efforts to protect us from major disasters. It locates the inevitable inadequacy in the limitations of formal organizations. We cannot expect them to do an adequate job in protecting us from mounting natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.  It locates the avoidable inadequacy of our efforts in our failure to reduce the size of the targets, and thus minimize the extent of harm these disasters can do. (chapter 9)
A specific failure in our current political system is the failure to construct an adequate and safety-enhancing system of regulation:
Stepping outside of the organization itself, we come to a third source of organizational failure, that of regulation. Every chapter on disasters in this book has ended with a call for better regulation and re-regulation, since we need both new regulations in the face of new technologies and threats and the restoration of past regulations that had disappeared or been weakened since the 1960s and 1970s. (chapter 9)
The central vulnerabilities that Perrow points to are systemic and virtually ubiquitous across the United States -- concentration and centralization.  He is very concerned about the concentration of people in high-risk areas (flood and earthquake zones, for example); he is concerned about the centralized power wielded by mega-organizations and corporations in our society; and he is concerned about the concentration of highly dangerous infrastructure in places where it puts large populations at risk.  He refers repeatedly to the risk posed by the transport by rail of huge quantities of chlorine gas through densely populated areas -- 90 tons at a time; the risk presented by LNG and propane storage farms in areas vulnerable to flooding and consequent release or explosion; the lethal consequences that would ensue from a winter-time massive failure of the electric power grid.

Perrow is an organizational expert; and he recognizes the deep implications that follow from the inherent obstacles that confront large organizations, both public or private.  Co-optation by powerful private interests, failure of coordination among agencies, lack of effective communication in the preparation of policies and emergency responses -- these organizational tendencies can reduce organizations like FEMA or the NRC to almost complete inability to perform their public functions.
Organizations, as I have often noted, are tools that can be used by those within and without them for purposes that have little to do with their announced goals. (Kindle loc, 1686)
Throughout the book Perrow offers careful, detailed reviews of the effectiveness and consistency of the government agencies and the regulatory legislation that have been deployed to contain these risks.  Why was FEMA such an organizational failure?  What's wrong with the Department of Homeland Security?  Why are chronic issues of system safety in nuclear power plants and chemical plants not adequately addressed by the corresponding regulatory agencies?  Perrow goes through these examples in great detail and demonstrates the very ordinary social mechanisms through which organizations lose effectiveness.  The book serves as a case-study review of organizational failures.

Perrow's central point is stark: the American political system lacks the strength to take the long-term steps it needs to in order to mitigate the worst effects of natural (or intentional) disasters that are inevitable in our future.  We need consistent investment for long-term benefits; we need effective regulation of powerful actors; and we need long-term policies that mitigate future disasters.  But so far we have failed in each of these areas.  Private interests are too strong, an ideology of free choice and virtually unrestrained use of property leads to dangerous residential and business development, and Federal and state agencies lack the political will to enact the effective regulations that would be necessary to raise the safety threshold in dangerous industries and developments. And, of course, the determined attack on "government regulations" that has been underway from the right since the Reagan years just further worsens the ability of agencies to regulate these powerful businesses -- the nuclear power industry, the chemical industry, the oil and gas industry, ...

One might think that the risks that Perrow describes are fairly universal across modern societies.  But Perrow notes that these problems seem more difficult and fundamental in the United States than in Europe.  The Netherlands has centuries of experience in investing in and regulating developments having to do with the control of water; European countries have managed to cooperate on the management of rivers and flood plains; and most have much stronger regulatory regimes for the high risk technologies and infrastructure sectors.

The book is scary, and we need to pay attention to the social and natural risks that Perrow documents so vividly.  And we need collectively to take steps to realistically address these risks.  We need to improve the organizations we create, both public and private, aimed at mitigating large risks.  And we need to substantially improve upon the reach and effectiveness of the regulatory systems that govern these activities.  But Perrow insists that improving organizations and leadership, and creating better regulations, can only take us so far.  So we also need to reduce the scope of damage that will occur when disaster strikes.  We need to design our social system for "soft landings" when disasters occur.  Fundamentally, his advice is to decentralize dangerous infrastructure and to be much more cautious about development in high-risk zones.
Given the limited success we can expect from organizational, executive, and regulatory reform, we should attend to reducing the damage that organizations can do by reducing their size.  Smaller organizations have a smaller potential for harm, just as smaller concentrations of populations in areas vulnerable to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters present smaller targets. (chapter 9)
If owners assume more responsibility for decisions about design and location -- for example, by being required to purchase realistically priced flood or earthquake insurance -- then there would be less new construction in hurricane alleyways or high-risk earthquake areas.  Rather than integrated mega-organizations and corporations providing goods and services, Perrow argues for the effectiveness of networks of small firms.  And he argues that regulations and law can be designed that give the right incentives to developers and home buyers about where to locate their businesses and homes, reflecting the true costs associated with risky locations. Realistically priced mandatory flood insurance would significantly alter the population density in hurricane alleys.  And our policies and regulations should make a systematic effort to disperse dangerous concentrations of industrial and nuclear materials wherever possible.

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