Saturday, May 29, 2010

Preparing For The Next Big Oil Spill

David Brooks writes a perceptive column in NY Times in which he argues that preparation for the next big disaster has to include not just better technical and mechanical processes but improvements in understanding human psychology which is not very good at complicated risk assessment:

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest. 

This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.

He quotes Malcolm Gladwell a lot.... synthesizer of stories on how seemingly disparate small events can link up and cascade into a really big event.


  1. Thanks for the link, Suvrat - it's really interesting commentary. While we are, quite correctly, concentrating on the technical dimensions and solutions, the psychology of catastrophes like this is also important. See also Jonah Lehrer's column:


  2. This is interesting, as is the whole question of how we understand risk.

    Who's at risk also seems to matter: if this had happened in the Niger delta--some say it has and is--we'd not be hearing about it. John Vidal argues this point at the Guardian: , Vidal basically says that oil is as cheap as it is because we let big oil companies get away with massive environmental destruction in many parts of the world--in those places, risk is largely irrelevant. What makes the BP leak special is that it happened in the US. It's an interesting argument, and one that deserves more attention, I think.

  3. thanks for the link Michael..

    good point Hari... exporting risk has been a big part of U.S energy policy.. the environmental consequences for example around the Niger delta are frightening.. I think one commentator made the point that U.S consumers will have to change the "not in my back yard" mentality..