BP oil spill, Katrina show that we need a technology of thoughtfulness: Fred Commoner

Date: Jul 08, 2011

BP oil spill, Katrina show that we need a technology of thoughtfulness: Fred Commoner

The National Oil Spill Commission, in its January 2011 report, called for improved technology for oil spill prevention and containment. A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, amid ongoing problems in Gulf Coast reconstruction, work on such technology is quietly under way.

New methods are being developed, and new devices are being invented. I've even invented a few myself.

Ours is a nation of innovators, and we often find that one technology can mitigate the dangers of another. We see this with everything from fire-place screens, to seat belts, to nuclear containment buildings, and yes, even oil well blow-out preventers. They do almost always work when called upon. Almost.

But there's a problem with our device-centered mentality, in the ever-expanding world of technological things. There is no such thing as a device that functions without infrastructure. Any safety system, even one based on mechanical equipment, even one based on supposedly automatic equipment -- such as an oil-well BOP -- depends upon a complex web of interconnected resources, including maintenance, funding, power and, significantly, the proper education of the people who keep it running.

Investigations of engineering disasters routinely find that problems in "organizational culture" are central causes of tragic events. This was the conclusion on the loss of two NASA space shuttles, the Chernobyl explosion, Hurricane Katrina and the explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine. This was also the verdict on the Deepwater Horizon blowout itself and the triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

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