Sunday, July 25, 2010

Asymmetrical accolades: Why preventing a crisis almost never makes you a hero

A friend recently related to me that the quality assurance manager at the pharmaceutical firm he used to work for was an absolute stickler for one thing: There had to be a convincing cleanup procedure for anything anyone proposed to bring into a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. If it got on the floor or in the air or on the walls or in the production line and it wasn't supposed to be there, there had to be a way to get rid of it completely. Either that or it wasn't coming into the building.

This friend explained that the quality assurance program run by this man was so good that the Food and Drug Administration pointed other firms to it as an example of what they should be doing. So, how did people at the company feel about this man? Well, they didn't really like him. I imagined that to his fellow employees this man must have been like an insect buzzing around their heads--a beneficial insect, to be sure--but a buzzing insect nevertheless.

It is doubtful that this man will ever receive an award for the deaths and illnesses averted because his diligence prevented impure drugs from reaching the public. Of course, there is no good way to gauge the number of lives saved or illnesses prevented. And, there is no one act people can point to as the clear reason that these deaths and illnesses never occurred. There is just the everyday heavy-handed enforcement of the safety and quality rules which only become an issue when they are violated.

In our thinking we place a premium on the dramatic rescue, the last-minute escape, and the ingenious on-the-fly technical solution. They all make good copy for reporters, and they make good stories for television and movies.

Who would argue that Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a disabled U. S. Airways jet in the Hudson River in January 2009 without a single death, is not a hero? The engines shut down after the plane hit a large flock of geese forcing the pilot to land without power. Sullenberger and his crew received many honors for their virtually flawless handling of the emergency.

No one should diminish the heroism of the pilot and crew of Flight 1549 on that January day. But who will sing the praises of the designers of jet engines who made them capable of withstanding almost all other bird strikes? Who can tote up the number of lives spared as result?

And, what about the workers at various government agencies who were given the gruesome task of finding places near New York City where geese live, corralling them and then taking them away to be gassed? Other workers coated goose eggs with corn oil to kill the unhatched goslings. Will they be given awards for helping to avert similar incidents in the future?

The movie Apollo 13 dramatized the ingenuity of American aerospace engineers as they skillfully improvised ways to get the crippled spacecraft home. Of particular significance was an improvised designed for adapting carbon dioxide filters from the command module for use on the lunar module. The astronauts had been forced to retreat there after an explosion hobbled the command module. The design had to be made using only materials available on the spacecraft. Again, no one should diminish the achievements of the people who saved the crew of Apollo 13. Without these adapted filters, the crew would have died from the buildup of carbon dioxide coming from their own respiration.

Yet, all the thousands of workers around the country who have designed and manufactured the components that have allowed countless hours of safe space travel will never have a movie made about them. (Yes, there have been two spacecraft lost since Apollo 13, namely, two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia. Space travel has always been risky. The culprits in each case were found, a faulty O-ring and a wing damaged during takeoff, respectively. But given the complexity of the U. S. manned spaceflight program, the track record is still very good.)

Moving our focus elsewhere, we can differentiate between the accolades given to those who make conquest through force, and those who do it by other means. In The Art of War the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu outlines an approach to winning that is based on stratagem, not fighting:

Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

The Chinese must still be taking lessons from Sun Tzu. While American military forces are in their eighth year of fighting in Iraq--a move designed to put American military power at the center of the world's most important oil region--the Chinese have been busy sewing up long-term commercial agreements for the delivery of oil and natural gas. And, they have been buttressing their efforts with economic aid to countries with critical natural resources such as petroleum and iron ore. They have also been busy buying companies or interests in companies with large deposits of key minerals.

No Chinese generals will be receiving promotions for such actions. And, it is difficult to make compelling military recruitment commercials from such material. It may be that the Chinese culture recognizes and rewards such stratagems. One might say that the Chinese have pursued such a strategy out of military weakness. But it may also be that Chinese leaders simply compared costs and found the cheapest, most efficacious way of gaining access to needed resources. They avoided military action and still achieved their goals. But there were no heroic acts to point to. And, nobody became a hero for having averted a catastrophe that might have resulted from military intervention in places having the resources the Chinese so desperately need for their industrial machine.

America seems stuck in the past. Without a centrally-directed industrial policy we have relied on a combination of military and private commercial power to secure needed imports. Perhaps the Chinese were quicker to realize that such a paradigm can no longer be effective given the costs exacted by those who are occupied.

In comparing the Chinese and American methods of securing access to critical resources I am not recommending either. Rather curtailment and conservation, relocalization of production, and reworking the infrastructure to consume far less energy seems the more prudent course. And, yet this is a preventive strategy. It is designed to avert a catastrophe in the future, not respond to an emergency apparent to the public right now.

As such those advocating this course are put in the unenviable position of the quality assurance manager mentioned above. Their ideas might save humanity from a catastrophic future. But since most people on the planet believe such a future is a mere fantasy, sustainability advocates are sometimes regarded in a worse light than the quality assurance manager whom the people at the pharmaceutical firm begrudgingly accepted as necessary. By and large the public still believes our situation is not critical and that heroic technological measures will solve all our major ecological problems.

The public is more interested in someone who tells them that nuclear power and biofuels will provide our future energy needs without any sacrifice than it is in an obscure British economist who has designed a system for a more equitable distribution of declining energy resources using a market-based quota system. The public is beguiled by heroic technological measures such as seeding the ocean with iron or building a space umbrella to help address the problem of climate change. Switching to bicycling for short trips and reducing meat intake seem like unnecessary sacrifices.

If a catastrophe of sufficient magnitude to get the public's attention were to occur--a sudden rise in sea level or a rapid, persistent decline in world oil production--then those in the sustainability movement would move from being prophets to being emergency responders. Maybe this would finally give them the recognition and respect they deserve. Only by then it will be too late to avert the worst.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Adaptation and the long view

One blade of grass is vulnerable to all sorts of shocks: drought, flood, infestation, and various human interventions including plowing and herbicides (if it's not the kind of grass a groundskeeper wants). But the whole family of grasses would be hard to eliminate. They are so various, so well adapted to their habitats, so ubiquitous in their reach. In short, they are excellent examples of organisms conditioned by millions of years of natural selection, nature's form of trial and error.

That's the long view of adaptation. Then, there is the human view. We are a species with a short history--perhaps at most 500,000 years. Our natural way of living--hunting and gathering--has been superseded by agriculture only in the past 10,000 years. And, our industrial way of life might be said to have begun a little over 200 years ago. And, yet we imagine that the least tested of our human systems of adaptation is somehow the most robust.

One of the latest adaptations in industrial society has been the microchip, now only about 70 years old with widespread application only about 30 years ago. Like a pioneer species it has spread quickly and is now ubiquitous in the modern world which could not function without it. We know its vulnerabilities including susceptibility to electromagnetic pulse, coding errors such as the Y2K or Year 2000 problem, malicious software that can not only commandeer computer resources but also destroy hardware, and a high degree of connectivity through the Internet that makes the spread of software-related problems easy and fast. And yet, we build an ever more complex world completely dependent on it.

We are now experimenting with even more destabilizing technologies such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics that computer scientist Bill Joy suggested might endanger the entire human species and perhaps many other species as well.

This understanding and the gathering problems of fossil fuel depletion and climate change have led some groups to suggest that new technology may not be the most adaptive path. The worldwide integration and homogenization of technology might be analogized to a monoculture, highly susceptible to a complete failure in the way that the grasses of the world discussed above are not. So often we hear that technology will solve this or that problem and increasingly that it will solve global climate change and rescue us from fossil fuel depletion. And, many of us have become conditioned never to think of the possible downsides of this technology. We almost never ask whether the cure might end up being worse than the disease.

Part of the problem is that the threats to the sustainability of human civilization are rushing toward us so fast that we simply don't have the time to do what nature does, namely, weed out poor adaptations over thousands of years. Nor do we seem to understand the risks we are running because of our highly interconnected society. Fatally flawed adaptation strategies won't just imperil an isolated population in one segregated locale. Rather, poor strategies have the potential to bring down all of modern civilization.

The optimists say that such risks are overblown, that so far all the concern about technology bringing us to our knees has been for nothing. But a fair reading of the data on climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil depletion, water depletion, biodiversity destruction, and myriad other measures tells a different story. What the optimists mean is that human populations are still growing and flourishing. What they leave out is that the natural systems upon which those populations depend for their survival are being swiftly degraded. We are like the proverbial man falling from the 100-story building who, when asked how things are as he passes by the 50th floor, says, "Fine."

The wiser course may be to return to the type of systems that have shown themselves to be more resilient through history: smaller settlements with more decentralized production of goods and services, broader participation in the growing of food and the production of goods, reliance on renewable energy such as wind and solar, and a society that designs its objects to make the full cycle from "cradle to cradle." This doesn't mean abandoning all new technology. It means developing technology that will stand the test of time based on known principles of resilience and sustainability and will do so without risking the wholesale destruction of humanity.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is net energy peaking?

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Is Net Energy Peaking?" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

When most people think of fossil fuel supplies, they think in terms of barrels of oil, cubic feet of natural gas and tons of coal. But in evaluating how much energy in the form of finite fossil fuels the world has left, these are no longer adequate measurements....Read more

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Whither the weak in the post-peak oil world?

It is often said that the test of any civilization is how it treats its weakest members. Those who are compromised physically, mentally or emotionally create a sort of live-action Rorschach test. Do the weak among us evoke our compassion or our scorn? If we are among the lucky ones who have our full faculties, our reaction to the weak says more about our view of the disfigured, stricken and defeated parts of our own psyche--the parts which make us feel most vulnerable and ashamed--than it does about the weak among us.

Even if we feel compassion for those less fortunate, we are rarely called upon to find the limits of that compassion. In a post-peak oil world that will in all likelihood no longer be the case. Let me do a thought experiment involving two hypothetical post-peak oil communities. One has done little to prepare for the shocks ahead. This lack of preparation of necessity means that only the strong survive the depredations suffered during a serious decline in the energy available to society.

A second community has been careful to make many useful adaptations before the onset of energy decline. This preparation has created a solidarity in the community and the means to shield the weakest members of that community from the worst consequences of a shrinking energy budget.

In the first community, once the initial crisis passes, resources that might have been devoted to helping the weaker members of society can now devoted to the needs and aspirations of the strong. It is a troubling conundrum that the first community, the unprepared community, has through its lack of preparation and perhaps hardheartedness created a robust cohort of survivors.

But all is not what it seems. The first community has merely been hit early by declining resources through lack of foresight and preparation. That community has made decisions about the welfare of the weak in an ad hoc, haphazard manner. The results might not be due to hardheartedness at all, but plain disorganization and poor planning.

The one advantage of the second better prepared community will turn out to be a superior sense of solidarity that may make it easier to march together down the slope of energy decline with more mercy and fewer casualties. I say there is ultimately only one advantage in this case because the second community will likely face that same choices as the first community only later.

We will be tested early or late on the limits of our compassion for the weak. How much of society's dwindling resources will we be willing to devote to the needs of those with limitations: the elderly, the infirm, the emotionally disturbed, the developmentally disabled?

In the fossil fuel era we have congratulated ourselves on our enlightened treatment of the weak, not realizing that our vast and increasing energy surplus made it possible to expand their possibilities without risking the viability of society as a whole. No doubt technology helped, too. How many books would Stephen Hawking have written without the special technologies available to the handicapped, especially those linked to the computer? How many children might have been left to wither and die in institutions were it not for new methods of instruction practiced by trained specialists who have made possible the vastly increased range of activities and even a degree of independence for some of the most profoundly handicapped among us?

But that infrastructure of people and machines implies a certain energy input from society. Even though we know that the current infrastructure can make those who are weakest among us vastly more capable of participating in society, will we be able to resist the calls from those who will say that the weak are too much of a burden on society--that it is best for society to let them wither and die and to nourish the strong instead?

There is, of course, the rather difficult problem of determining what constitutes a strong person and what constitutes a weak person. In some cases it will simply be a question of social position and life chances, or in other words, luck. If we say a strong person is one who survives and a weak person is one who does not, we are now truly back to the most brutish morality possible, i.e., that might makes right.

And, there is another consideration. There is a need to keep one's community functioning through adequate levels of nutrition, health and shelter. This is a prerequisite for helping the weaker members of society. That means weighing the more diffuse compassion that one might feel for an entire community against the tangible and immediate needs of those suffering in front of one's eyes. This balancing act will tax the souls of even the most compassionate and enlightened leaders.

The post-peak oil era will indeed test us. It will test whether our compassion merely flows from the end of a pipeline or whether we can sustain it in the depths of our hearts as the fossil fuel era draws to a close.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The complexity gurus and our margins of safety

Human societies have long relied on specialists to help in complex matters involving the natural and human-built worlds. Ptolemaic astronomers used what would seem to us moderns as a needlessly complex Earth-centered system to explain the heavens and predict celestial events. And yet, they were amazingly accurate. Complex societies of the past have employed specialists in war, statecraft, engineering, agriculture, shipbuilding, and a variety of other tasks that would be difficult to accomplish without in-depth knowledge.

And, yet these specialists typically lived not within societies that were managed along completely rational principles. Instead, the role of religion was far more prominent that it is today and tightly interwoven with the workings of the state. In recognition of the irrational and unknowable in human affairs, the gods were invoked to help steer events which humans were incapable of fully understanding or controlling.

Fast forward to today. The modern managers of the rational state rarely invoke the divine except for ceremonial purposes. They imagine that they can model the world of social and natural events accurately enough to understand and control it. But today these managers enlist the help of an entire class of theorists and researchers who do nothing but study the complex systems we rely on. And, it has become a matter of faith that this class of complexity gurus can amass enough understanding to overcome the vast uncertainties that drove ancient humans to seek help from the gods.

Recent events should give us pause. Daniel Yergin, the ever smiling guru of world oil supplies from Cambridge Energy Research Associates, is regarded as perhaps the most influential energy analyst on the planet. We cannot say what his private counsel to clients has been. But we can judge his public pronouncements about supplies and prices for the first decade of this century. That record is miserable. A site called "The Sad Record of Daniel Yergin and Cambridge Energy Research Associates" details his and his firm's prognostications.

We should not expect one person to be omniscient. But if he pretends to be omniscient, and we go along with it because we don't have expert knowledge, then we are only doing what most people are simply forced to do in our society: Defer to specialists because we have neither the time nor the inclination to master the subject at hand. But people in high places are making public policy and important corporate investment decisions based on such advice. And, that affects us no matter who we are.

Also in the last decade, Wall Street wizards told us that the complexity of the supposedly new financial instruments they cooked up were simply a response to a more complex world. Perhaps. But even these wizards failed to understand the risks involved. Alan Greenspan, former U. S. Federal Reserve Bank chairman, admitted as much in congressional testimony in 2008. Prior to that Greenspan and his fellow travelers in the financial community put their faith in ideology, not the gods. The so-called free market would sort everything out and keep everyone within bounds. Instead, a bloodbath ensued that still threatens the viability of the world economy.

Finally, the promoters of offshore drilling managed to convince themselves and others that no untoward major spill could come from the advanced technology now available. It was, of course, full speed ahead until the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. There were concerns prior to the blowout. But in the arcane world of offshore drilling, few outsiders were qualified to judge the risks of such drilling properly. As far as I know, there was no public pronouncement that a blowout on the scale of the BP one was likely before the accident.

What should be taken from this record of the complexity gurus? Certainly, they have technical knowledge which few can match. And, they keep track of developments in their respective areas much more thoroughly than nonspecialists. So, given that, why are their judgments frequently so mistaken?

First, no one can know the future, not even well-informed specialists. Second, specialist knowledge by its very nature tends to crowd out a broader and more nuanced view of the world. The perennial optimism of technophiles is alluring. But a good dose of history and literature would teach the specialist that in the affairs of men and women, things often don't go according to plan no matter how carefully constructed that plan has been. Third, and probably most important, is that the systems we depend on have become so complex that we simply cannot know all the ways that they can go wrong hampering our efforts to prevent accidents or outcomes with severe consequences.

Should we do away with complexity gurus? In a word, no. But our expectations of them need to be far more circumscribed. We must simply stop taking their word for it that the risks inherent in our modern systems are well-understood and under control. And, we need to widen greatly our margins of safety to account for what we do not or cannot know.