Reliably good enough?

Under what conditions is good enough a reliably good-enough?


The best-known gloss on good enough must be that of D.W. Winnicott, the psychotherapist, when describing the good-enough mother. The good-enough mother is not perfect, and that is a Very Good Thing. At baby’s birth and for a period thereafter, the good-enough mother is one who manages to be there when child needs mother. So available and in sync with the child’s needs is mother that the child at some point feels it created mother–indeed, created the perfect mother. Over time, the real mother—and this is where her “good enough” comes in—disillusions the child that “mother” is its very own creation.

Winnicott describes what the good-enough mother does as “management,” “provision” and “reliability.” One of his descriptions illustrates the point for a specialist audience of his:

One cannot help becoming a parent-figure whenever one is doing anything professionally reliable. You are nearly all, I expect engaged in some sort of professionally reliable thing, and in that limited area you behave much better than you do at home, and your clients depend on you and get to lean on you.


The reliability professionals in large critical infrastructures face the dilemma of good-enough parents: How do they disabuse us, the consumers of water, electricity and other vital services, that our being better off is now more up to us than before and in ways we really haven’t yet appreciated?

How to reinforce in us that the declines in services underway aren’t “declines” any more than is the reality-check that we did not create mother on our own? If the control room operators we interviewed are representative, reliability professionals are the last people to persuade us out of our fever dreams. They think we’re adults.


What, though, to say to those who argue good enough is not possible, here?

What if there are fewer and fewer routine responses to more and more shocks, less and less capacity to think ahead or be resilient afterwards? All this moreover happening in a world where problems are unprecedented, where competent leaders are not to be found, and where regulators are even more ill-equipped?

If so, the answers are crystal-clear: Our infrastructures are not headed for catastrophe. They—and we—are in the middle of that disaster, unfolding right before our eyes.

But is that actually happening? Are they physically crashing right before your eyes?

Yes, the pressures on critical systems are real and threatening; but, there is a world of difference between having no guarantees for future reliability and insisting that the failed future is here for the rest of now.


But there’s something very odd about that failure assigned to capital, commodity and consumption. We’re to suppose that their systems of production fail notwithstanding that, in reality, their technologies are constantly replaced before they have had time to physically collapse and permanently fail.

Better not to dwell on that, it seems, and write articles with titles like, “Getting the social cost of carbon right.” As if we have that kind of control where to fail big-time is defined as pre-empting failures nearly as big. As if this were even good enough!

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