"The last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf, it was off the coast of Mexico in 1979. If something doesn't happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing." That was what a senior administration official recently told a McClatchy reporter, in regards to the Gulf gusher. As it turns out, this is a pattern with engineering accidents, be they bridge collapses or oil-platform blowouts. Disaster strikes, a flurry of safety improvements follow, but then engineers get over-confident in their new innovations, and eventually disaster strikes again. Repeat ad infinitum. Here's how historian Edward Tenner explains it over at The Atlantic:
In 1977 the University College London civil engineers Paul Sibley and Alistair Walker published a paper suggesting that major bridge collapses occurred at approximately 30-year intervals as new designs succeeded old as a result of the failure's lessons, new generations of designers became increasingly confident in the safety record of their innovations, until they finally pushed them over a tipping point, beginning a new cycle.
The civil engineering professor and historian of technology Henry Petroski has developed this idea, which last came to the fore in the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, as discussed here and here. My graduate teacher William H. McNeill coined a mordant phrase for such recurrence of disasters partially as a result of confidence in reforms, the Law of the Conservation of Catastrophe.
As long as we stay addicted to crude, it's hard to see us escaping this cycle—especially since we're using up all the "easy" oil, and companies need to keep foraging deeper and deeper into the ocean, continually pushing the boundaries of safety technology.
P.S. The New York Times has a long investigative piece today on what exactly went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon. Definitely worth the time.
(Flickr photo credit: Arnold Itkin LLP)