In his classic book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Perrow discussed the numerous high-risk technologies that pervade modern life and the dangers they pose for society. First published in 1984 with an updated version released in 1999, Normal Accidents presents an argument for the inevitability of large-scale disasters such as nuclear meltdowns, petrochemical-plant explosions, maritime accidents, and so forth. These accidents are inevitable, or “normal,” because they stem from systems that have specific structural characteristics. Namely, these systems are interactively complex, meaning that different parts of the system are likely to work together in ways that produce unanticipated consequences. Secondly, these systems exhibit tight coupling, meaning that a single change in one part of the system will directly lead to changes in other parts of the system.
This means that over time disasters will become increasingly likely. In other words, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
In his 2007 book The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, Perrow builds upon the themes presented in Normal Accidents while suggesting a few approaches toward limiting the havoc that such normal accidents will inevitably wreak upon society. In so doing, he also points out three more sources of vulnerability beyond interactive complexity and tight coupling. These three sources are all in the form of high concentrations of the following:
- Energy. In numerous locations around the United States, industrial storage facilities house vast quantities of explosive, toxic, and flammable substances. Because these storage facilities are concentrated in specific locations, an accident in any one of them would be much more disastrous than if storage occurred in smaller quantities at a greater number of separate sites.
- People. High population densities in risky areas make disasters in those locales catastrophic. For example, New Orleans is a vulnerable city—due to its geography and its proximity to high-risk industry. The fact that it is also high in population density makes it particularly vulnerable.
- Economic and political power. Perrow has a knack for drawing our attention to the role of power in organizations, and he argues here that mega-corporations and the political entities with which they interact wield so much power over very real aspects of our daily lives that any failure within them could pose serious risk. One example he cites is the pervasive nature of the Microsoft Windows operating system. If Windows failed—due to a massive computer virus, for example—catastrophic damage to business, government, and personal livelihood would likely result. Another example, although not addressed directly in the book, is the danger posed by financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” that we have witnessed in recent years.
To address these issues, Perrow argues that (a) government should implement wise regulations that limit these concentrations and (b) that leaders should focus on these concentrations as real threats instead of being distracted by other less-likely sources of disaster. In essence, he suggests that the focus should be on “shrinking the targets.” For example, Perrow argues that political interests have overestimated the terrorism threat in the United States while underestimating the threats posed by industrial forces, such as the nuclear power industry.
Overall, Perrow presents a number of examples that suggest the three areas of concentration listed above are indeed sources of vulnerability. His approach toward shrinking those targets, however, appears to focus mostly on policy decisions rather than aspects of human behavior within organizations.
As such, The Next Catastrophe provides an interesting view of disaster and vulnerability at a macro level. Much like “watchdog” groups that illuminate concerns within government agencies and programs, Perrow has been shining a light on the dark side of organizations, business, and government for decades. And his suggestions, when coupled with other viewpoints at the micro level, may provide a way for us to avoid the ominous theme of “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” that underscores his theories.
The article also appears at Foster Excellence.