October 22, 2017

How to avoid Flixboroughs

What caused the Flixborough disaster? The experts tell us it was a burst pipe, but do they know? In fact it doesn’t really matter. It is only of use to know what precise technical fault was the immediate cause of the explosion if it were possible to prevent not only the failure in question but technical faults in general from recurring. But this is impossible.

All processes can and do go wrong; even subtle biological ones are subject to error. Those taking place in genetic processes give rise to mutants. Those occurring during the development of the embryo in the womb can lead to deformed or dead foetuses. During cell division they result in tumours which can become cancerous and cause death. During the socialisation process, in which a child learns to become a differentiated member of its family and society, errors give rise to deviants and delinquents.

Mutations, deformed and dead foetuses, tumours and social deviants have in common that they are random rather than differentiated parts. They also have in common that they are inevitable. One cannot prevent them, only create the conditions in which both their incidence and their effect are reduced to a minimum. This is, in fact, admirably achieved by genetic and cultural evolution, whose goal, as is that of all self-regulating behavioural processes, is stability (which is nothing more than the reduction to the minimum of the incidence and effect of discontinuities including, of course, random errors).

If errors occur in such processes, into which there has gone several thousand million years of research and development, how much more likely are they to occur in our ridiculously rudimentary technological processes which are based on relatively untried principles.

In addition, as industrialisation proceeds, the greater is the impact of technological processes on biological, ecological and social ones.

These become increasingly unstable, that is to say they become subject to increasing discontinuities.

It is no accident, for instance, that the mutation rate is rising, as is the incidence of cancer and social deviance. Crime, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental diseases are increasing at an ever greater rate—as is industrial conflict, sabotage and violence between different social groups. As our economy becomes dependent on the proper functioning of increasingly dangerous and increasingly large scale technological installations, so are these trends ever less tolerable. (It is intolerable, for instance, that the crew of a U.S. Nuclear Submarine should be largely made up of drug addicts—as was recently found to be the case.)

Accidents to technological installations, it must follow, can be predicted on the basis that they must occur, not only as a result of technological faults which themselves are inevitable, but also of biological, social and ecological ones, whose incidence, as industrialisation proceeds, can only increase.

This brings us to reconsider the notion of “cause”. Scientists today attempt to understand the world by examining its processes in isolation from each other in terms of single oneway “cause” and “effect” relationships. It can’t be done.

It is possible that the Flixborough factory might not have exploded if a pipe hadn’t burst, but neither would it if it had never been built, nor if there had not been an industrial revolution, nor if the British Isles had never been inhabited, nor if Homo Rapiens had never evolved beyond the stage of Pithecanthropus Erectus.

Each of these events can be regarded as a “cause” in the sense in which we use the term. The specific event which we single out as the “cause” is simply the one which appears relevant in the context of the corrective policies we have decided in advance to apply to prevent the recurrence of the incident, the “cause”, in fact, we are willing to do something about.

Clearly Homo Rapiens has evolved and is in fact around in ever increasing numbers. No-one is likely at the moment at least to suggest his extermination. Clearly too he has discovered the British Isles and is unlikely to vacate them. Also the industrial revolution has occurred and we shall probably continue building factories like that at Flixborough until it becomes impossible to do so. The burst pipe, therefore, must be the “cause”, because it is the only one we can do something about, short of reversing the course of progress, vacating these islands or exterminating Homo Rapiens.

Unfortunately, we are applying the wrong criterion in selecting the relevant “cause” of the accident. The important one is not that which we think we can do something about, but the one which must be countered to make absolutely sure the accident will not recur.

Even if we design indestructible pipes for our chemical works, this will not prevent future accidents. The only way to do so, and by the same token to prevent life on this planet from being annihilated by inevitable, increasingly numerous and increasingly lethal accidents to such things as nuclear power stations and nuclear waste retreatment plants, is not to build them. (The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission has publicly admitted that by the end of the century we can expect at least one Nuclear accident every year.)

There is one thing wrong with this argument. In the same way that one can predict accidents in technological installations, so one can predict that, in an industrial society, there will be an irresistible tendency to build such installations since the economy must grow, and a stage is eventually reached when it can only grow by constructing them.

To be consistent, therefore, the important and hence relevant “cause” is not, in fact, the building of the plant, but the creation of a situation in which it can be predicted that the plant will be built, i.e. the development of an industrial society.

The only way to prevent Flixboroughs, it must follow, is to de-industrialise society, and that is precisely what we must start doing right away.

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