Control Overload

The final breakdown that occurs when an attempt is made to control a system comprehensively. Every control usurps local decision-making, and needs to be controlled itself, so that, with each added control, there is more to be controlled, until the system is crushed by the weight of it all.

It is hard to stop because in the latter stages, failures keep occurring, which prompt the installation of more controls.

Examples: financial regulation; anti-terror/enemy-of-the-state regimes; state-controlled health services; law and order when rivalries develop; fast-breeder nuclear reactors (see “The Limits to Control” sidebar).

The trouble with fast-breeder reactors

There is a systemic problem with the design of breeder nuclear reactors. Nuclear accident is potentially so destructive that the possibility has to be practically ruled out under all circumstances. This means that the defence-in-depth systems have to be extremely complex, which means that the installation must be large enough to derive economies of scale—otherwise it would be uneconomic. However, that in turn means that no confinement dome can be built on any acceptable design criterion on a scale and with the structural strength to withstand a major accident. Therefore, the defence-in-depth systems have to be even more complex, which in turn means that they become even more problem-prone than the device they were meant to protect.

A study for the nuclear industry in Japan concludes: “A successful commercial breeder reactor must have three attributes: it must breed, it must be economical, and it must be safe. Although any one or two of these attributes can be achieved in isolation by proper design, the laws of physics apparently make it impossible to achieve all three simultaneously, no matter how clever the design.”C254


Related entries:

Complexity, Connectedness, Responsibility.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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