Drilling Down

pp 65-96


The Energy–Complexity Spiral

  • Joseph A. TainterAffiliated withDepartment of Environment and Society, Utah State University
  • , Tadeusz W. PatzekAffiliated withDepartment of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin

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Engineers build many wonderful things that few of us would choose to live without. Yet, as we have seen, some structures are of such complexity and magnitude that an unforeseen failure can kill nearly a dozen men, ruin thousands of livelihoods, and pollute a valuable ecosystem. Failure on this scale is obviously undesirable, yet it happens to bridges, space shuttles, and giant drilling rigs. In response, our instinct is to seek proximate causes, which include such factors as mistakes, oversights, and technical failures, the very things on which most attention has been concentrated in the news media. By applying some fixes – better training, better oversight, a different corporate culture – we assume that the accident could have been prevented and that we can avoid future ones. Engineers must examine and learn from these proximate causes of failure, but as a society we are bound to seek the ultimate cause of tragedies such as the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout. The alternative is to lurch from failure to failure of increasing magnitude. We will find that the ultimate cause lies deep within humanity’s history, and in the very essence of what it means to be a civilization. A civilization is a complex society, and complexity is a phenomenon that we must understand in order to comprehend our potential futures and shaping events such as the Gulf tragedy.