As both individuals and as a species, human beings have always had a tendency to press the limits, both of their societies and their technologies. This tendency has good points and bad points… good because as a species we wouldn’t have developed and life would still be in the “natural state,” or “nasty, brutish, and short,” a pithy observation attributed to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. The “bad” side of pressing the limits has been minimized, because the advantages have been so much greater over time than the drawbacks.
Except… the costs and the consequences of pushing technology to the limit may now in some cases be reaching the point where they outweigh the overall benefits, and not just in military areas.
The latest and most dramatic evidence of this change is, of course, the current Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion and the subsequent oil blowout. Deep-sea drilling and production platforms are required to have in place redundant blow-out protectors… as did the BP rig. But the blow-out protector failed. Such failures are exceeding rare. Repeated tests show these work over 99% of the time, but something like 60 have failed in tests of the equipment. The Gulf oil disaster just happens to be one of the few times it’s happened in actuality and represents the largest such failure in terms of crude oil releases. What’s being overlooked, except by the environmentalists, who, so far as I can tell, are operating more on a dislike of off-shore drilling than a reasoned technical analysis, is the fact the number of offshore drilling platforms is around 6,000 in service world-wide in some form or another, and increasing. That number will increase whether the U.S. bans more offshore drilling or not. From 1992 to 2006, the Interior Department reported 39 blow-outs at platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and although none were as serious as the latest, that’s more than two a year, yet that represents a safety record of 99.93%. In short, there’s not a lot of margin for error. What makes the issue more pressing is that drilling technology is able to drill deeper and deeper – and the pressures involved at ever greater depths put increasing stress on the equipment to the point where, as is apparent with the BP disaster, stopping the flow of oil in the case of a failure becomes extraordinarily difficult and exceedingly expensive, as well as time-consuming. Because crude oil is devastating to the environment, the follow-on damage to the ecosystems and the economy of the surrounding area will create far greater costs than capping the well.
Pushing technology beyond safe limits is nothing new to human beings. When steam engines were first introduced, the desire for power and speed led to scores, if not hundreds, of boiler explosions. Occasionally, disasters led to changes, such as the phasing out of hydrogen dirigibles after the Hindenburg fire and crash, but that change was also made easier by the improvements in aircraft, which were also far faster than dirigibles. The costs of other disasters are still with us – and we tend to overlook them. The town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, has largely been abandoned because the coal seams in the mostly worked out mines beneath the town caught fire and have been smoldering away for more than forty years, causing the ground above to collapse and continually releasing toxic gases. In Pennsylvania alone, there are more than 30 such subterranean fires. World-wide there are more than 3,000 such fires, some of which release more greenhouse gases and other toxic fumes than some coal-fired power plants. Yet few of these fires are more than watched, because the technology does not exist that can extinguish them in any fashion close to cost-efficient and in some cases, not at all because the fires burn so deep.
Pushing electronic technology to the limits, without regard for the implications, costs, and other downsides, has resulted in a world linked together in such a haphazard fashion that a massive solar flare – or a determined set of professional hackers – could conceivably bring down an entire nation’s communications and power distribution network – and that doesn’t even take into account the vast increase in the types and the amounts of exceedingly toxic wastes created on a world-wide scale, most of which is still not handled as it should be. Another area where technology is being pressed to the limits is that of bio-tech, where scientists have reported creating the first synthetic cell. While they engineered in considerable safeguards, once that technology is more available, will everyone?
As illustrated by the BP disaster, we when, as a society, push technology to its limits on a large scale, for whatever reason, the implications of a technological or systems failure are getting to the point where we require absolute safety in operation of those systems – and obtaining such assurance is never inexpensive… and sometimes not even possible.
But then again… if we tweaked existing technology just a bit more so that we could get even more out of it…. get more oil, more bandwidth, make more profit…