Tag Archives: charles perrow

A massive concentration of energy, power, and people

The incident with the Costa Concordia on Friday 13 may be seen as an excellent example of what American disaster sociologist Charles Perrow in his recent book The Next Catastrophe has described as the consequence of concentration on three different levels:

  • Concentration of energy
  • Concentration of power (political and economic)
  • Concentration of people

The max speed of the Costa Concordia was “only” 23 knots – roughly the same as the Titanic, but significantly less than that of the United States which took the Blue Riband on the Atlantic in the 1950’s with an average crossing speed of around 35 knots. But the Italian cruise ship had a tonnage of almost 115,000 tonnes compared to the 40,000 tonnes of the Titanic – a behemoth of her own time. Moving an object weighing of this immense size (the largest cruise ship of today, for comparison, is the Allure of the Seas, weighing in at 225,000 tonnes) through the water represents a massive outlet of energy – with potential distastrous consequences in the event of a collision. Notice the photograph above of the after port section of the Costa Concordia below the waterline showing how she actually tore off part of the reef which became imbedded inside the hull.

The concentration of economic and political power stems from a limited number of extremely large companies running the majority of the world’s cruise ships (primarily Royal Caribbean and Carnival). To avoid taxation and stricter safety regulations they usually sail under Bermudan or other flags of convenience. These companies are so large and powerfull (probably employing more lawyers and accountants than the international maritime organizations altogether) that oversight and regulation is difficult.

Reg. concentration of people: 4,300 souls sailed in the Costa Concordia, packed together on an area less than a thousand yards in length and a 100 yards in width. With the Allure of the Seas and her sister ship you may raise this number to more than 8,000. Everybody (the passengers, the crew, owners, and perhaps also legislators) tend to view these giants of the sea as “practically unsinkable”, a term coined by the Shipbuilder Magazine in 1911 in a special edition celebrating the building of the Olympic and the Titanic in Belfast for the White Star Line.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship. This might be the most important overall lesson of the Costa Concordia. Memento mori – remember that you are mortal. That goes for us all, also when we sail on a big cruise ship or board an A380.