I have just finished The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter and should have a review up the first of next week. In short Tainter makes the case that it’s increasing complexity that eventually results in the collapse of complex systems. Is it that same increasing complexity that is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Kurt Kobb says yes:
While accusations continue to fly back and forth about who is to blame for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and investigations commence into the recent wild one-day gyration in the American stock markets, the real culprit stands quietly and in plain sight in the corner: Complexity.
It is a strategy as old as civilization. Assign each person to do a part of the entire job, and the job will get done faster and better as each member of the work team hones skills and learns tricks to improve his or her performance with each repetition of the task. It’s called the division of labor, and as it spreads and intensifies, it leads to greater and greater complexity in society.
The search is now on for what exactly went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig around 10 p.m. on April 20. But that is probably the wrong question. Certainly, investigators will find some irregularities in the actions of the crew sufficiently close to that time to label as “causes” of the disastrous explosion, fire and subsequent oil leak. The broader question is how such a system of oil exploration became subject to such a catastrophic failure.
One answer is that offshore drilling, specifically deepwater drilling, is an exceedingly complex enterprise. And, the more complex an operation is, the greater the chances of a breakdown. Counterintuitively, the safer we try the make such operations, the more the operators of such rigs will likely push the limits of what those rigs are capable of doing and thereby invite additional disasters.
According to Tainter increasing complexity is a systems response to new challenges. Increasing complexity requires increasing investment and eventually the costs exceed the benefits.
Some are now making the case that the potential damage from offshore oil drilling could far outweigh its continued benefits or returns. The broadest definition of returns might include the disruption of livelihoods; the destruction of ecosystems and the lost productivity of those systems to humans as well as animals; the climate and pollution effects of using oil and its byproducts; the energy and financial costs of containment and cleanup of spills; the additional energy and financial costs which are likely to be imposed on future offshore oil exploration; and the additional regulatory costs and disaster readiness which will be borne by society. Such a broad tally of consequences lends some support to the idea that we are past the point of positive returns to society of continued oil use, especially if the oil is obtained from offshore wells.
One of costs of the complex offshore drilling system is environmental damage. Mitigating that damage may be a cost to high.
Cross posted at Newshoggers