“What’s missing?” in this catastrophic earthquake scenario


–Start again: A system is more or less complex in terms of the number of components it has, the different functions each component serves, and the degree of interconnectivity (latent and manifest) between and among the number of components and their differing functions.

This social science definition isn’t the only one (cf. complexity is the ineffable beyond words), but the problem isn’t too many competing definitions. Rather, pundits talk about complexity as if everyone knew what it was, with some only later concluding “it has to be more complex than that!”

Two conclusions follow from this definition, it seems to me. Right off, the methodological imperative is not, “First, simplify!,” but, “First, differentiate!” What components? What functions? What interconnections? Equally important: Complex with respect to what? Complex under what conditions? Only in probing this way, I believe, can you come to understand what you have simplified in taking for granted.

If the point of departure is, “First, differentiate!,” then the chief methodological question to ask upfront is: “What am I missing that’s right in front of me to help with that differentiation?” If you can’t see what you’d be seeing if it were not for your blind-spots (cognitive, professional, other), how can you expect to find the complications that matter but aren’t visible, as if behind your head out-of-sight?

–To be clear, I mean “what’s missing right in front of me” literally. First, two examples from outside policy and management. What I’m missing right in front of me is coming to see in the lines from a George Meredith poem,

In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean's force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!

that “horse” and “shore” function as anagrams, and then to ask: To what effect or difference does this make for my reading? (E.g., as if “ramping hosts of warrior” reversed into a “faint thin line”.) It’s also coming to see in the Hiroshige’s print,

that the waves of water and night-light are produced by the underlying grain of the woodblock, and then to ask: To what effect or difference does this make for my viewing? (E.g., as if the female image is walking out from the grain-waves behind.)

–The vast majority of us, of course, are inexperienced and untrained in reading for anagrams or seeing the technique of kimetsubushi at work. We must instead be distracted to take a second or further look. For the inexperienced, the way to be sidetracked or distracted is by surprise—in this case, the surprise of finding the grain-wave pattern on your own or an oddity in the “ocean’s force” being contraposed by “horse” to “shore.” Even if afterwards Meredith’s lines remain mediocre and Hiroshige’s print astounding still, overlooking the complexity is that simplification taken for granted which robs us of surprises that inform.

Note the most plausible reason for not seeing what is unseen—“Well, the reality is that it’s just not there at all!”—turns out to be least plausible when living in a complex world of many components, functions and interconnections. In that world, new connections can and are to be uncovered all the time where not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are ever present.


Now an example of how what’s missing and the rest work in policy and management.

So as not to make this easy, consider what many call the most catastrophic natural disaster in the United States, were it to happen: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the 800-mile long off-shore Cascadia subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest. To make the impacts real, I focus on research and work at one specific site and its affected infrastructures: Portland, Oregon.

–A great deal of seismic attention and concern has been directed to the state’s Central Energy Infrastructure (CEI) hub in Portland. (The CEI hub is core to Oregon and not just the city.) It is “a six-mile stretch of the lower Willamette River where key liquid fuel and natural gas storage and transmission facilities and electricity transmission facilities are concentrated.” It is an area, however, subject to lateral spreading, ground shaking, and liquefaction, among other physical vulnerabilities (tsunamis, hazardous liquids explosions and fires, high voltage line collapse). Much of the infrastructure has not been brought up to seismic standards and instead was built with what are today very major deficiencies.

The CEI hub is in other words highly vulnerable were earthquakes to occur and it is recognized that “to minimize extensive direct earthquake damage, indirect losses, and possible ripple effects, substantial improvements to the critical energy infrastructure are necessary.” “We know the earthquake is coming. We know we have to take steps to address this,” policymakers and legislators admit and studies confirm.

Unsurprisingly, much of the attention has been directed to mitigating the severity of the vulnerabilities. New seismic standards have been brought into effect as have prohibitions on expanding CEI hub tank farms, better containment barriers have been studied, retrofitting is underway, automatic shut-off valves are being adopted, alternative supply chains and better emergency responses are actively modeled or prototyped, and proposals have been offered for increasing/relocating the storage capacities elsewhere and closer to communities affected. Not enough has been done, but it is important to recognize that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake would test any “built-to-last” scenario.

–At which point my thinking is distracted by a familiar quip that stirs to mind: Today, it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.

It’s easier to imagine a M9 earthquake scenario both obliterating an even better-hardened CEI hub and unleashing catastrophic fuel spills, fires, landslides, death and destruction than it is to get rid of these structures before it’s too late.

It’s easier to imagine that a Presidential Disaster Declaration would be immediately issued, that competent personnel would be identified and transferred into the states to take over from infrastructure staff who don’t show up because they are trying to save their families, that local people will only figure out what to do after they see what’s left to work with, and that interconnected infrastructures, just like the communities, would be islanded off from each other indefinitely—it’s easier to imagine that and imagine far worse than it is to get rid of the CEI hub and imagine ramifications of the alternatives.

–Which returns us to the earlier “Unsurprisingly”. Say again? “We know the earthquake is coming. We know we have to take steps to address this.” Huh?

In fact, think a bit more about what they don’t–can’t?–see right in front. What better way, save war and the plague, to bring the governments of in the Pacific Northwest to their collective knees than ‘‘solutions,’’ like those pre-disaster mitigations, because the existing economies are so taken for granted that their believers see no choice—no alternative—but to be catastrophic now on unprecedented scales? This “easier to imagine,” we are to believe, is taking complexity seriously.

What next on the earthquake mitigation agenda? Deep machine learning and better algorithmic management for preparedness? Autonomous robots to direct evacuations once the disaster has hit? But what about the trade-offs? And whose to say that the uncontrolled releases of wastewater and stormwater flows into the Willamette won’t mitigate the toxic fuel fires racing across it? Where is the governance structure to decide all this!

Principal sources

Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (2013). The Oregon Resilience Plan: Reducing Risk and Improving Recovery for the Next Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami. Report to the 77th Legislative Assembly. Salem, Oregon.

Ricks, C. (2021). “The anagram.” In his: Along Heroic Lines, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK: 19 – 55.

This blog entry updates the earlier “What am I missing?”

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