The Next Catastrophe

The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

Charles Perrow
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    The Next Catastrophe
    Book Description:

    Charles Perrow is famous worldwide for his ideas about normal accidents, the notion that multiple and unexpected failures--catastrophes waiting to happen--are built into our society's complex systems. InThe Next Catastrophe, he offers crucial insights into how to make us safer, proposing a bold new way of thinking about disaster preparedness.

    Perrow argues that rather than laying exclusive emphasis on protecting targets, we should reduce their size to minimize damage and diminish their attractiveness to terrorists. He focuses on three causes of disaster--natural, organizational, and deliberate--and shows that our best hope lies in the deconcentration of high-risk populations, corporate power, and critical infrastructures such as electric energy, computer systems, and the chemical and food industries. Perrow reveals how the threat of catastrophe is on the rise, whether from terrorism, natural disasters, or industrial accidents. Along the way, he gives us the first comprehensive history of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security and examines why these agencies are so ill equipped to protect us.

    The Next Catastropheis a penetrating reassessment of the very real dangers we face today and what we must do to confront them. Written in a highly accessible style by a renowned systems-behavior expert, this book is essential reading for the twenty-first century. The events of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina--and the devastating human toll they wrought--were only the beginning. When the next big disaster comes, will we be ready? In a new preface to the paperback edition, Perrow examines the recent (and ongoing) catastrophes of the financial crisis, the BP oil spill, and global warming.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3851-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the Paperback Edition Continuing Catastrophe
    (pp. vii-xlviii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xlix-l)
  5. Part One: Introduction and Natural Disasters
    • 1 Shrink the Targets
      (pp. 1-13)

      Disasters from natural sources, from industrial and technological sources, and from deliberate sources such as terrorism have all increased in the United States in recent decades, and no diminution is in sight.¹ Weather disturbances are predicted to increase; low-level industrial accidents continue but threaten to intensify and the threat of cyber attacks on our “critical infrastructure” becomes ever more credible; foreign terrorists have not relaxed and we anxiously await another attack. Cataclysmic fantasies proliferate on movie screens and DVDs, and scholars write books with “collapse,” “catastrophe,” “our final hour,” and “worst cases” in their titles.

      But we have neglected a...

    • 2 “Natural” Disasters?
      (pp. 14-40)

      Societies put their people in harm’s way. Modern societies do so with an especial vengeance because their technology and resources encourage risk. But sixteenth-century Holland and Venice swelled on unstable mud and have been pumping, filling, sinking piles, and building dikes ever since. Who is to say that their centuries of affluence were not worth the risk of being in harm’s way? However, harm’s way has been widening in recent decades. Global warming is playing a role, but the more immediate problem is development. Urbanization concentrates the targets of both “nature’s wrath” and industrialization. With population growth and migration to...

  6. Part Two: Can Government Help?
    • 3 The Government Response: The First FEMA
      (pp. 43-67)

      The Federal response to disasters has been predictably late, reactive rather than proactive, accommodating to the special interests of business and Congress, and unable to enforce penalties for failing to take obvious precautions. This is predictable for at least two reasons. One is that there is no unified constituency for the variety of disasters that can occur that would demand planning over a long time horizon; consequently, the government is often reacting to rather than anticipating disasters. As federal involvement increased in the second half of the twentieth century, each major event fostered new laws and the creation of new...

    • 4 The Disaster after 9/11: The Department of Homeland Security and a New FEMA
      (pp. 68-130)

      If fema represents a promising but flawed attempt to involve the government in natural disasters, the 9/11 crisis presented a challenge to our government that went way beyond those that natural disasters had presented for decades. It also presents a challenge to the thesis of this book.¹ The World Trade towers were large targets that could not be reduced; depopulating New York City is not an option. But terrorists could choose to attack any number of other targets that we are now trying to protect, and these targets could be reduced in size. Regardless of that, this chapter will demonstrate...

  7. Part Three: The Disastrous Private Sector
    • 5 Are Terrorists as Dangerous as Management? The Nuclear Plant Threat
      (pp. 133-173)

      Nuclear plants in the United States present two sources of cataclysmic danger. One is stored nuclear waste products, planned for Yucca Flats in Nevada, which threaten to contaminate vital water supplies. Given the fearsome predictions associated with global warming, the area may be unsuitable for agriculture in one hundred years anyway. More fearsome in immediate terms is the release of radiation from one of our 103 operating plants because of natural disasters, industrial accidents, or terrorist attacks. Tens of thousands of people might die and land equivalent to half of Pennsylvania become uninhabitable. Terrorists could do this right now with...

    • 6 Better Vulnerability through Chemistry
      (pp. 174-210)

      On july 18, 2001, baltimore was at risk of devastation when a sixty-car train owned by CSX caught fire in a tunnel in downtown Baltimore. Several of the cars had pulp material, which caught fire, burning other cars with dangerous chemicals, one of which was hydrochloric acid. The train derailed at three in the afternoon, and by nine that night all major highways into the city were closed to incoming traffic. Local telephone service was disrupted, a baseball game canceled, and parts of the backbone of the Internet were slowed. A water main broke, flooding and collapsing streets and knocking...

    • 7 Disastrous Concentration in the National Power Grid
      (pp. 211-247)

      On august 14, 2003, large portions of the Midwest and Northeast in the United States and Ontario in Canada experienced an electric power blackout. The outage affected an area with an estimated 50 million people and 61,800 megawatts of electric load in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey and the Canadian province of Ontario. The blackout began a few minutes after 4:00 p.m., eastern daylight time, and power was not restored for four days in some parts of the United States. Parts of Ontario suffered rolling blackouts for more than a week...

    • 8 Concentration and Terror on the Internet
      (pp. 248-288)

      In the 1990s, following the First Persian Gulf War, the United States engaged in almost daily bombing of targets in Iraq, in response to Iraq’s failure to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and its interference with UN Special Commission inspectors. Early in 1998, the buildup of U.S. troops and material in friendly spots in the Middle East intensified, in preparation for Operation Desert Fox, a major three-day bombing campaign. In February 1998, the Department of Defense discovered that intruders had broken into numerous secure DOD computers. They had obtained “root access,” which would allow them to steal information,...

  8. Part Four: What Is to Be Done?
    • 9 The Enduring Sources of Failure: Organizational, Executive, and Regulatory
      (pp. 291-326)

      This book has been about the inevitable inadequacy of our efforts to protect us from major disasters. It locates the inevitable inadequacy in the limitations of formal organizations. We cannot expect them to do an adequate job in protecting us from mounting natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters. It locates the avoidable inadequacy of our efforts in our failure to reduce the size of the targets, and thus minimize the extent of harm these disasters can do. But why are organizations so inadequate? First, there are the inevitable human failings of cognition, motivation, organizational designs, and so on, and the unpredictable...

  9. Appendix A Three Types of Redundancy
    (pp. 327-330)
  10. Appendix B Networks of Small Firms
    (pp. 331-334)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 335-354)
  12. Index
    (pp. 355-377)