“The survival-value of human intelligence has never been proved.” Michael Crichton late-great science-fiction novelist speaking to us from his first great novel, The Andromeda Strain
“Human beings can be made to believe anything and to advocate dangerous actions, so long as the supposed authority behind the ideas is SCIENCE.” Rajjpuut’s thematic extraction from Crichton’s last novel State of Fear
To Err is Too Damn Human
The word “Chernobyl” comes immediately to mind. The situation in Japan has deteriorated markedly in the last fifteen hours. The so-called “perfect storm” has hit. 1. An 8.9 magnitude earthquake (3,000 times more powerful than the one that hit New Zealand recently) struck from the ocean floor near northeast Japan. 2. A huge tsunami generated by the earthquake struck the region. 3. The combination of seawater and the original earthquake and 136 aftershocks each greater than 6.0 on the Richter Scale destroyed the viability at least one nuclear power plant at the Fukushima site powering Tokyo turning it into a serious ecological threat. 4. Several mechanical back-up systems wisely created to prevent “the perfect storm” have so utterly and miserably failed that they might as well have taken on a mind of their own and deliberately sabotaged the whole endeavor 5. It appears that initial planning and particularly site location for at least some of the fifty-five Japanese plants was less than circumspect and for the Fukushima nuclear plants (more than one are located there – tell me it ain’t so, Lord!) was downright criminal. 6. It is very, very likely that human error after the initial earthquake also played a part in the ongoing disaster.
Short of a magic-bullet solution, this mess is on course to deteriorate far worse and far more rapidly than most of us can imagine. Japan is a densely-populated nation and an island. Japan is the site of routine and powerful earthquake activity on the “Pacific Rim of fire.” Japan has suffered a horrific 8.9 magnitude earthquake and 136 severe aftershocks most of them rivaling the power of the earthquake that hit New Zealand. If normal “protocols” following a major earthquake occur, Japan can expect Mother Nature to send them a string of tremors lasting at least the next five weeks . . . each of them with the potential to make the Fukushima situation categorically WORSE. Think of the British Petroleum disaster one year ago. Now multiply the potential ill-effects by half a trillion . . . it’s not just a mess. It’s the ultimate mess (note: the term “mess” is an exacting term first applied to human activity in a meaningful and scientific way by Americans Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe and their Kepner-Tregoe Management Systems program beginning in the late 50’s and early 60’s, more on this later). Perhaps two of the worst effects in the long run from this situation will be adding weaponry to the environmental saboteurs’; and Jihadist saboteurs’ arsenals . . . any doubt where they’ll tend to aim their attacks now? Let’s try to put this disaster into perspective . . . .
We’ve all seen techno-thriller movies with the now common theme of “technology-run-amuck.” It wasn’t always so. The idea itself was so powerful that Hollywood itself couldn’t even hope to handle it adequately. For example, they took one of the greatest novels of all time, Frankenstein, and made such a farce out of it in numerous variations for sixty years, that when finally an honest rendition of the novel was produced they had to name it “Mary Shelley’s” Frankenstein to let people know this was the real McCoy exactly as the great novelist wrote it and not some hangover from the Hollywood 1940’s. They even had to get Robert De Niro to play the part of Adam, Victor Frankenstein’s misbegotten creation to lend authenticity to the project.
The single greatest pioneer of this genre of sci-fi, late great sci-fi writer Michael Crichton wrote many extremely popular books and was part of several truly great movies as well. Two of his greatest endeavors were found near the beginning of his rise to fame and near the end of his days: The Andromeda Strain and the lesser known but seriously provocative State of Fear. The two novels present alternating views of human reality, neither one of them very flattering. In the Andromeda Strain Crichton ventures the idea that the survival value of intelligence has never been adequately documented and thus we often become our own worst enemies. The message in State of Fear is even more pointed and poignant . . . human beings can be made to believe anything and to do any dangerous things, so long as the authority behind the lies is “science.” One is reminded of the so-called science of “eugenics” operating as a founding principle within Nazism. The Nazis actually made serious long-term trips to the Himalayas to “investigate Aryan roots.”
Crichton’s suggesting in State of Fear that in the name of the supposedly good (e.g. “environmentalism”) reacting to perceived techno-threats, we are also capable of tremendously stupid actions with the potential to create enormous dangers** to ourselves. Taken together the message from the two books is easily underestimated: To err is human; and human arrogance makes all problems exponentially worse. This is the story of the third hit in Japan: the nuclear disaster following the earthquake, the tsunami, the 136 aftershocks and everything else that went wrong. As a tenet from Messers Kepner and Tregoe which has so often been validated puts it: “the most important management activity is potential problem analysis (PPA) and follow-up prevention; the most important question in PPA is “What could go wrong?”
When you find the answer to the question “What could go wrong?” is “Absolutely everything!” You know somebody didn’t ask the vital question seriously enough in the first place. Let us break down this “mess” into its component disasters:
1. Should a nuclear reactor ever be built in an earthquake zone, “What could go wrong?”
2. Should a nuclear reactor ever be built near enough to the coastline that a tsunami could conceivably hit it, “What could go wrong?”
3. Should two or three or more nuclear reactors ever be built within fifty miles of one another? If multiple reactors are built within very close proximity, “What could go wrong if one reactor has a severe lack of coolant accident? Could things be made exponentially worse by the presence of a second reactor so near?”
4. Even if a nuclear reactor’s redundant safety systems survive a severe earthquake, “What could go wrong if a tsunami hits?”
5. Even if a nuclear reactor’s redundant safety systems survive a severe earthquake and a tsunami, “What could go wrong if a string of aftershocks more than 6.0 on the Richter Scale hit?”
6. Even if a nuclear reactor’s redundant safety systems survive a severe earthquake and a tsunami, and a string of aftershocks more than 6.0 on the Richter Scale, “What could go wrong if back-up power systems fail?
7. Even if a nuclear reactor’s redundant safety systems survive a severe earthquake and a tsunami and a string of aftershocks more than 6.0 on the Richter Scale and a failure of backup power systems to employ, “What if the core still cannot be cooled and what if even heroic human endeavors fail to return the core to safe levels?”
Such is the anatomy of a mess: a confluent congregation of problems each of which by itself might not amount to an insurmountable problem, but which in their overwhelming negative synergy can prove disastrous. Let’s add the final questions . . . .
8. What if human operator or human management error is added to the other problems?”
9. What if human slowness in the face of conflicting evaluations is added to the other problems?
10.What if danger to human operators and/or managers makes even trained proper responses impossible?
11. What if the universe decided to make an example of us on this one?
You get the picture . . . the road to hell can indeed be paved with the very best of intentions, but a certain amount of stupidity makes the devil’s work go ever so much smoother.
Ya’all live long, strong and ornery,
** For example, the banning of DDT has unnecessarily killed roughly 78 million people (just from malaria, not to mention five other serious widespread insect-borne tropical diseases) since 1972 based upon the pseudo-scientific book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The 1972 level of 40,000 malaria deaths annually worldwide has now deteriorated to 2.1 million deaths annually. The pseudo-science of global warning by reverting the entire globe to energy use reminiscent of the early 1800’s would result in death by starvation, etc. of perhaps two-thirds of present humanity within two or three years if the most “ambitious” anti-global warming solutions were employed. Some solutions are much more dangerous than the problems (if the problems even actually exist). Crichton’s State of Fear is the perfect vessel for understanding the political biases rampant among people who use the environmental movement as a vehicle for personal empowerment, wealth and CONTROL.