Disasters sow seeds of success

Great disasters occur constantly. The Asian financial crisis blasted the miracle economies of Asia. The Great Recession of 2007-09 led to the bankruptcy/rescue of the five top investment banks on Wall Street, the biggest bank (Citibank), the biggest insurance company (AIG), the biggest auto manufacturer (General Motors) and the biggest mortgage underwriters (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). The BP disaster in the Caribbean is the greatest environmental disaster in history. Some people fear that global warming will be the biggest manmade disaster of all.

Many NGOs and politicians want to retreat from cutting-edge technologies (deepwater exploration, climate geoengineering) to avoid all risks. Others want to end or avoid innovation in economic and financial issues, retreating into state-regulated cocoons. Alas, these remedies will be worse than the evils they seek to remedy. The right approach is to learn from disasters and combine innovation with greater safety. The wrong approach is to retreat from innovation. Many Americans want to stop offshore oil exploration, saying the BP disaster shows that potential costs exceed the benefits. This argument is bogus. If true, all offshore oil exploration across the world should be banned, since environmental disaster can strike anywhere. Such a ban will quadruple oil and gas prices and send the world into a Great Depression. That will be infinitely costlier than the BP disaster.

After the Great Recession, some point to the state-controlled banking systems of India and China as safer. Yet, India merely proves that if a financial system is bound hand-and-foot, it will not have enough rope to hang itself. Ratios of bank credit to GDP of 200% in some countries may have been too high, but India’s 50% is clearly too low, and has starved citizens of badly-needed credit. Over-controlled India escaped the Asian financial crisis. But its Asian neighbours, though badly hit, had 5 to 20 times India’s per-capita income. For Indians, with a per-capita income of $350, to gloat over the troubles of Thailand, with a per-capita income of $3,000, was a case of sour grapes.

Indeed, India’s economic success in the last decade was aided crucially by financial liberalisation. The lesson India learned from the crisis was to calibrate financial liberalisation, not abandon it. The global system is also learning from the Great Recession. Right now, the proposed changes look insufficient. But certainly, risk awareness has improved greatly.

Disasters will still occur. No innovation or new exploration is ever risk-free. But just as shipwrecks did not stop exploration of the seas, so too economic and technological disasters should not stop economic and technological innovation. Henry Petroski of Duke University has written a book, Success through failure: The paradox of design. Its key lesson is that failures teach us more than successes. Failures lead to radical design changes that are needed but are ignored in times of unbroken success.

One example is the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Bridge in the US. For decades, engineers had built ever-longer suspension bridges, and this lulled them into overconfidence. The Tacoma disaster showed that suspension bridges were vulnerable to high winds if their stiffness and girth were not specifically engineered for safety. Subsequent suspension bridges, often longer than the Tacoma one, were made stiffer, and sometimes had a second deck to combat high winds even if traffic did not justify it. Failure at Tacoma bred success in ever-longer bridges, not a retreat into smaller bridges.

Airships in the 1930s used hydrogen to keep aloft. Then the Hindenburg, the world’s biggest airship, caught fire and airship production ground to a halt. However, this soon led to airships being filled with safe, inert helium instead of inflammable hydrogen. The sinking of the Titanic, the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 all forced engineers to come up with new designs to combat risks earlier thought to be negligible.

The Exxon Valdez tanker was rock-wrecked by a drunken captain in 1989, and leaked enormous quantities of oil into the sea. This spurred a global shift from single-hulled tankers to double-hulled tankers that can withstand a crash. The Exxon Valdez disaster spurred Exxon to develop one of the best safety records in the industry. The BP disaster will lead to vastly-improved equipment to thwart future deep-sea disasters. Already four top oil exploration companies have decided to pool their safety and rescue resources in the Caribbean. This lesson should also apply to geoengineering to combat global warming. Pilot projects have begun to pour iron ore into the sea to increase its carbon-absorption capacity. Simply spraying seawater into the sky could create clouds that reflect back sunlight and combat warming. The same effect might also be achieved by shooting aerosols and sulphates into space to reflect back sunlight. Many green outfits oppose such geoengineering because of the risk of calamitous side-effects. Dumping iron ore in the sea, for instance, could increase sea acidity and bleach corals. Yet, iron ore is one of the common minerals in the earth’s crust, and must be abundant in seabeds already.

We should start with pilot projects to educate us on possible benefits and risks, and scale up after adjusting for risks. Geo-engineering could be a far cheaper way of providing insurance against global warming than carbon reduction. Many greens believe that humans should not tinker with nature, and will be penalised for it. In fact, humans evolved from the hunter-gatherer stage only because exploration and innovation is hardwired into their DNA.

Poet TS Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to return to where we started, and know the place for the first time.” Greens who fear exploration know very little of the nature they claim to protect, and think that ignorance is bliss. Regardless, we humans must and will explore every facet of nature. Then alone will we know the place for the first time.

3 thoughts on “Disasters sow seeds of success

  • 2010.Oct.24 at 12:04
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    liked the article…and what a meaningful last para..!!!!

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  • 2010.Oct.18 at 10:58
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    Evolution & changes are permanent in this life and for it to happen, one might call it innovation or creativity.

    Also, as pointed out by you only through failures key lessons are learnt towards movement to Success

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  • 2010.Aug.08 at 13:55
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    it’s quite simple and lucid to say that innovation must go on but as far as nature is concerned i think there is no need to alter the forces of nature. otherwise this could led into quite an averse situation.innovation seems good only when it facilitates mass.

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