Our Misplaced Trust in the Reliability of Everyday Systems

Unless you are just naturally a Nervous Nelly, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about what could go wrong in our busy, crowded, complex world.  This blind trust in our everyday systems may give us some peace of mind but it might not give us a secure future.

“If you think about it, it’s a wonder this doesn’t happen more often,” I mused last week as I rounded up the details of a food poisoning incident that sickened four of the six people present at my family dinner. The details were important to the local health inspector, not so much in this reflection on how much we assume the systems we touch every day in our lives will work right.

As the CDC website estimates, “each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.”  While we had a couple lousy days, we were lucky to be otherwise healthy victims.  Where in the food chain from production to my table those nasty bacteria found their way into those Cornish game hens will remain a mystery.  What is less a mystery is how much we depend on all those hand-offs from people we will never know.

Every time I barrel down an Interstate highway within an acceptable range of the 70 miles per hour speed limit I think how much my safety depends on thousands of other drivers and vehicles. On our crowded highways, it is a marvel that we still have the same level of annual fatalities as in 1950—just over 30,000 lives.  This doesn’t lessen the need to improve our transportation systems. Fatalities did increase a bit in 2012 with pedestrians experiencing an increasing risk.  Now that I do think about this, maybe I should be more worried about distracted drivers when I walk.

Due to enduring one too many power failures in the past two years, I do think a lot about our dependence on electrical systems.  Statistically our risk of a power failure doesn’t look much worse than the risk of food poisoning.  According to an AP commissioned study, we might expect to experience about one non-weather related power failure per year of an average duration of 112 minutes.  Some experts say it is taking longer to restore power due to aging infrastructure. Our increased usage and lifestyle vulnerability surely exacerbate how long those recovery times feel.  We might have the redundancy to route around problems with a smarter grid. But as with most of our aging public nfrastructure, this solution continues to get knocked out of our spending priorities.

If you add in weather-related power failures, the risk rises, especially if you live as I do in the Southeast or Northeast where high winds, ice and snow bring down power lines, fry substations and put thousands of homes and businesses in the dark for days at a time.  In 2012 the US suffered 11 billion-dollar weather disasters with power failures only part of our misery.  We are in denial on two fronts:  the risk of climate change and the scale of our vulnerability in these disasters.     

This reflection could go on and on. We could remember the recent chemical contamination of the Charleston, W.VA water supply.  This case illustrated again how little we really know about the risks related to many chemicals and the location and condition of thousands of private storage facilities.

So while there’s no need to turn into a Nervous Nelly, we should be a lot less oblivious about the condition of the everyday systems that keep us safe, healthy and productive. This blind trust will get us into a lot more trouble if we continue to assume everyone will do their part and all will be well. When we fail to think about what could go wrong, we have to share in the collective blame for a society designed to fail.