Witnessing the Failure of Complex Systems First-Hand
On June 21, I wrote to you about the failure of complex systems, and I mentioned Joseph Tainter’s groundbreaking 1988 work, The Collapse of Complex Systems. Well, this Labor Day weekend, I watched the failure of a complex system up close and personal.
My plans had been simple: Mary Beth and I had decided to relax at home for the holiday weekend. On Friday night, we popped a celebratory bottle and were feasting on cheese and crackers when our phone rang. On the other end of the line was my son, who had recently joined the ranks of fatherhood. He and his wife, along with my only grandchild, were on a Labor Day driving trip and had just pulled in to Albuquerque, New Mexico. As they unpacked their bags at the Marriott Pyramid North, his wife (my daughter-in-law) crumpled over in pain.
My son quickly loaded his wife and baby back into his Ford Escape and headed to the nearest hospital emergency room. After they arrived, his wife was quickly diagnosed… and she needed surgery. My son’s call for help shattered our plans to relax, and my wife and I quickly packed our bags and were off to Albuquerque.
What followed was nothing short of a disaster.
Twenty minutes after my son arrived at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital, a section of downtown suffered a power outage. The outage immediately turned the windowless hallways of the trauma center pitch-black. The backup power generators groaned, and then they failed.
My son, his seven-week-old baby and my daughter-in-law were trapped in what the hospital administration later called an “internal disaster.”
Unfortunately, a lack of overhead light was the least of the hospitals problems. You see, today’s hospitals can’t dispense a pill, check a patient’s temperature, or pump an IV without electricity. When the power went out, medicine regressed 50 years in the blink of an eye.
Mary Beth and I arrived about four hours after the power outage began, and we were met by firemen and hospital security who refused us admittance. By then, the 90 degree outside heat had converted the brick and glass building into an oven. My son struggled down seven flights of unlit stairs to hand his son to me from an emergency exit door.
Living on the Edge of Collapse
Now, I tell this story to illustrate the fragile nature of the complex systems we as Americans have embraced (and take for granted).
At the hospital, we later learned that a power surge fried the hospital’s redundant back-up systems. Without backup power, doctors and nurses were left with only flashlights to see the critically ill. It was over 24 hours before emergency electrical systems began the long process of re-booting. My daughter-in-law desperately needed an MRI before surgery, and she waited over 24 hours before the test could go forward. Then, she learned the operating rooms weren’t up and running either. Fortunately, her situation wasn’t life or death.
And the more I thought about it, the more I found the situation to be a fitting microcosm of the sort of collapses Tainter was discussing in 1988. It’s a perfect illustration of just what he was attempting to explain. He wanted to emphasize that complex and successful societies could collapse in a short time.
This simple power outage brought many questions to my mind – what if the outage had been from an EMP attack and the systems couldn’t be restored in 24 weeks, let alone 24 hours? How many would have died? As systems become more complex, relatively minor glitches have the possibility to spin out of control. As inventories shrink and just-in-time deliveries increase, we have fewer margins for error.
Sadly, the arrogance of our political leaders has kept our country from preparing adequately for systemic crisis. We depend on the private sector to provide food, water and medicine, yet the government hamstrings our private system with nonsensical and often outdated regulation and controls.
Tainter believes that systemic collapse happens when the complexity of the current order spontaneously seeks less complexity. But politicians are too fixated on making war and seeking more control to notice that the order they’ve created is too complex to operate under the stress.
Your eyes on the Hill,