I went to two colleges as an undergraduate; I completed an associate degree at a community college and then transferred to Boston University where I completed my bachelor's. At the community college I was enrolled in the "honors program" which included this weird "synthesis" course--part history, part literature, part current events.
My professor was deeply enamored of Charles Perrow's idea of "normal accidents". Simply put, a "normal accident" is caused by our inability to fully grasp all the ramifications of our actions when enmeshed in the increasingly complex systems technology creates. Basically, a series of individually innocuous events can combine in unforeseen ways and cause a major incident. Two cases Perrow uses to bolster his case are the Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents; for example, the alleged presence of an inspection tag obscured a gauge at TMI-2, causing personnel confusion, was "normal" in the sense that placing the inspection tag makes sense in its own context, but not in the context of a developing emergency. Similarly at Chernobyl, the testing procedures themselves were a contributing cause to the accident.
You get the idea. It's a little funky, but Perrow had a valid point. My professor--a classic hippy if I ever knew one--latched on to this as an argument against nuclear power. Missing Perrow's point, he adopted in class the position that these "normal accidents" are the inevitable consequence of complex technology, and that we must either simply accept their existence (and the deaths they cause) or abandon that technology altogether. His preference was clearly the latter. (Perrow's actual point was that these kinds of "normal accidents" are deserving of special study, and that non-linear interactions of complex systems should inform risk analysis and safety engineering.)
But this was also the semester of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Socrates would be proud of me that day; in a series of questions I got my professor to agree that the drilling, extracting, shipping, and refining of petroleum is also a complex system of exactly the type Perrow describes. Then I delivered the coup de grāce--I asked, "If that's so, aren't spills like Exxon Valdez simply one of the kinds of 'normal accidents' that are the inevitable consequence of petroleum technology? And if so, by your own lights, shouldn't we either learn to accept them or abandon that technology altogether. Which would you have us do?"
He was speechless. Class ended shortly thereafter, and next class we moved on to another topic.
I am reminded of this because Thomas Friedman is out stumping for his book The World is Flat. In the book and the Salon article I linked to, he makes the point that energy independence for the US is vital to our stated foreign policy goals of remaking the Middle East--and that to do so we're going to have to suck it up and deal with nuclear power once and for all. This quote specifically reminded me of the incident with my old professor:
The risk of climate change by continuing to rely on hydrocarbons is so much greater than the risk of nuclear power.While any number of Friedman's ideas might be hokey (I've not read the book yet) he's absolutely spot-on about that. I only wish I could've made that point to my professor. Posted by cerebus at April 7, 2005 11:32 AM