Oct 13

New Zealand’s Oil Disaster: Black Swans and Human Errors

A couple of years ago, the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb invented a new metaphor which describes what he calls low probability, high impact events – the Black Swan. For centuries this creature was not thought to exist, but then the discovery of a single animal turned this assumption on its head. What Taleb is getting at is the way in which our ideas about the way the world works can be totally shifted by a single, shocking event. Once it happens, the author notes, humans are pretty good at concocting explanations for why it did, to make the thing seem more normal, to allow us to continue on as before.

The sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic: a classic black swan. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, another. Exxon Valdez? Sure. This week’s grounding of a tanker carrying fuel oil through one of the most beautiful marine environments on earth? Just the latest.

As the 21st century evolves around us, one thing is clear. When it comes to mankind’s thirst for energy we are entering uncharted waters, and the old assumptions are no longer cutting it. Major spills don’t happen in rich countries with tough regulations, like the US, like Britain, like New Zealand. Wrong. Oil companies are getting better at avoiding major spills and at dealing with them when the worst happens. Wrong. Existing regulations are enough to prevent this kind of thing happening in the future. Wrong.

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