September 3, 2023
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by Jonathan Wallace

Many years ago, I added a book to the list of the ten or twelve works I characterize as Books that Wrote Me, mostly scholarly works with clear, direct and widely applicable messages which have helped me analyze this world as I go through it: Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents. How I found it I don't remember, but it is likely that I was browsing in a bookstore and bought it on the spot, intrigued by the title and concept.

A common theme of Books That Wrote Me is that I can easily summarize their thesis. This contrasts with most of the reading I have done: I drove myself to read Spengler, for example, but always have to look at what I wrote to remember his theory. But I can tell you that Perrow analyzes a variety of accidents which occur in "complex, tightly coupled systems". These tend to be human systems so complicated that no one specialist can understand the entire operation. Two things go wrong at once, either of which might be manageable: in one area a liquid overheats, and in another, a gauge which is supposed to tell you that, is broken. In one chapter, I recall, Perrow analyzes Three Mile Island; in another, the fascinating and rather morbidly funny story of the loss of a large lake in a matter of minutes, when workers drilled a hole on the lake bottom into an abandoned mine they did not know was underneath (without any casualties or I wouldn't dare call it funny). Chernobyl happened a a year or two after the book came out.

In the decades since the work appeared, Perrow himself and others have successfully applied "normal accidents" theory to a wide variety of other incidents, including software failures and bank crashes. I myself have thought through the 2008 mortgage meltdown and climate change as "normal accidents". Today, the theory is useful in analyzing the apparent breakdown of our Constitution (the electoral college provision and others are malfunctioning, and the "gauges", the court system that could alleviate it and the Congress which could fix it, are not acting). And it is also useful thinking about what happened last week on Maui.

I can't pretend to have a complete understanding, but the facts reported so far are very Perrow-like. A hurricane 800 miles away drove strong winds across the island. In abandoned sugar plantations and elsewhere, native grasses had been supplanted by much drier and more flammable invasive species, originally introduced into the island as fodder for horses and cattle. The water used to fight fires soon dried up, because of climate-change driven drought, but also because dwindling water had been diverted from some places to others (I will come back to this). The fire may have been started by unprotected electrical lines blown down by the winds. Cell phone towers were destroyed and service went out; a failure of electricity contributed to failure to spread warnings through outages of plugged in devices like televisions. And the humans in charge chose not to sound the emergency sirens, apparently from confusion whether they were only for tsunamis or for fires as well.

Maui, like all human places, was a "complex, tightly coupled system". Who knew that there was a fundamental connection not only between invasive grasses and water allocation, but to cell towers and sirens?

Pulling back the metaphorical zoom lens to take a wider view, Perrow's fascinating book doesn't deal with the political or economic causes of normal accidents: the fact that the facilities that fail are often built in disadvantaged areas, for example. On Maui, wealthy owners abandoned the plantations and did not manage or maintain them, allowing invasive grasses to dominate. Water was diverted from poor to wealthy areas. When you complete the Perrowvian analysis, there is yet another to be made, in a United States (everywhere, not just Hawaii, with its sketchy colonial history) of rapidly growing inequality.

Then there is another panorama to consider: the failure of government to show up at the outset and in the aftermath (setting aside the inadequacy of resources to fight the fire). The sirens weren't used; afterwards, state and federal personnel (police, national guard, medical teams, FEMA) were startlingly lacking in wide areas in which volunteers, and victims helping one another, were the only help available. This phenomenon, of government not showing up, first burst upon national consciousness during Katrina (also a normal accident). It has been easy, my whole life, to blame Republicans for a deemphasis or cancellation of public resources-- but Hawaii is a very blue state.

I have been struggling for years to get my mind around this phenomenon, and I have only made a start. I think there has been a shift from actual expertise in solving problems to a sort of performance, a theater, of problem solving. This was nicely signaled in two moments of the second Bush administration, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" and "Mission Accomplished". I was quite young when I first sensed that Congress, when it claims to solve problems at all (which it is too fragmented even to do any more), is only pretending. The Gramm-Rudman legislation of 1985 was touted as forcing the U.S. government to balance its budget, and has obviously failed. A large part of the cause, of course, is that humans largely can't figure out how to solve the "wicked" problems they create. Intriguingly, the doctrine of "wicked problems", a phrase coined in 1967 by a systems analyst, nicely dovetails with Perrow's: wicked problems tend to be complex and tightly coupled social issues. But I am more concerned by a trend in which humans have given up trying to solve problems, and are simply gesturing at them. In a democracy, this has always been a feature of the group activities of elected officials: looking busy and serious, often when they have no intention of doing anything, and voting legislation or putting policies in place they know will have no effect.

There is one more element which emerges here, of a general evaporation both of authority and responsibility in American government. Reading business philosophy books when I was in the corporate world in the 1990's, I soon learned that those two things must go hand in hand. It is pathetic to have responsibility for problems you have no authority to solve; and dangerous to exercise authority with no responsibility for restraint, sagacity or compassion, and no external checks or balances. Donald Trump actually stands for a Presidency of totalitarian authority without responsibility, and the Hawaii emergency executive (I don't know enough to say this with certainty) may be a bureaucrat saddled with duty for problems but lacking power to solve them.

Finally, I think of something else I have analyzed, two closely related myths, one I call "the myth of rescue" and the other for which I will coin a phrase right now, "of "restoration". The first hurricane I experienced, in 1960, at age 6, was Donna, the first in a series of disasters which I came complacently to believe for much of my young life were very impermanent: houses and cities knocked down by wind, water or tremors were completely rebuilt months later and everyone went on with their lives normally. This mentality is perfectly captured in what I call the "Star Trek plague episode". Thirty five minutes in, the faces of all the actors appear to be rotting off. At minute 50, they all look perfect again, and don't even bear any scars. That is the myth of restoration.

The myth of rescue says that, if you are ever in danger, in the mountains, the desert, at sea, on a city street, someone in uniform is already on the way to save you. What we are learning today is that increasingly, not just in disadvantaged areas but even in opulent ones in times of extreme crisis, the people in blue or green just don't show up.