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

10/22/2007 4:00 PM Bartos
Charles B. Perrow, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Yale University

Description: It's time to trade in the Department of Homeland Security for a Department of Homeland Vulnerabilities, says Charles Perrow. At its peril, our nation "privileges terrorism over natural and industrial disasters."

From Perrow's perspective, the U.S. landscape is riddled with "weapons of mass destruction:" chemical plants; vital infrastructure such as bridges and levees; aging nuclear power plants; large, centralized providers of energy, water and food, all of which are obvious targets for natural disasters, accidents or attack. "There are 123 locations in our nation where a vapor cloud released by an accident or terror attack could endanger over 1 million people," says Perrow. Freight trains loaded with poisons lumber through our cities every day. With global warming, storms, floods and fires are on the increase. And the internet is "held hostage to Microsoft's command of 90% of the operating systems that we use." This means hackers with malicious intent could subvert sensitive facilities like our power grid and infiltrate the U.S. military.

We can't prevent and mitigate our way out of this fix, no matter what administration is in office, says Perrow, although he bemoans the enormous erosion of regulatory oversight during the Bush era. He proposes instead such steps as removing hazardous materials from major population centers; dispersing vulnerable populations; breaking up or decentralizing large organizations; and codifying these measures through stringent laws. This approach won't likely win him friends in places like New Orleans, a city he hopes will not spring back to its pre"Katrina size. Cities in risky areas should be downsized, and provided with multiple evacuation routes and redundant means of protection and emergency services. "If we rely only on a few, we will be in peril."

He takes aim at defenders of big organizations, who say we need economies of scale to function in a global economy. "Bigger is not safer," says Perrow. The larger the manufacturing plant, or internet service network, the more concentrated the power, the more likely an accident of consequence is to take place. We need many smaller, interconnected facilities, which can provide adequate economic efficiency. Perrow cites some "baby steps" in the right direction -- laws mandating public disclosure and inventories of hazardous materials and processes, and the switch by manufacturers to less poisonous substances. But real results "all depend on politics."

About the Speaker(s): Charles Perrow is an organizational theorist and the author of such books as The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters(2007);The Radical Attack on Business (1972); Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies(1984; revised, 1999); The AIDS Disaster: The Failure of Organizations in New York and the Nation (1990) with Mauro Guillen; and Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of American Capitalism (2002).

Perrow is past Vice President of the Eastern Sociological Society; a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavorial Sciences (1981"2, 1999); Fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science; Resident Scholar, Russell Sage Foundation, 1990"91; Fellow, Shelly Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, 1995"96; Visitor, Institute for Advanced Studies, 1995"96, Princeton University; former member of the Committee on Human Factors, National Academy of Sciences, of the Sociology Panel of the National Science Foundation, and of the editorial boards of several journals.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Program in Science, Technology and Society

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