Environmental Crisis and the Paradox of Organizing
49 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2011 Last revised: 19 Dec 2011
Date Written: December 10, 2011
Public organizations, including those involved in contingency planning, have tremendous influence over the ultimate scale and scope of an environmental crisis. Yet our understanding of how organizational behavior can either rein in or exacerbate crises continues to lag behind advances in technology. This Article considers the role of public organizations in the blowout of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Its theoretical lens is the “paradox of organizing,” a frame that I suggest should be applied to interorganizational responses to low-probability, high-consequence events. The struggle to differentiate tasks and subunits and then piece them together during moments of great uncertainty can challenge and strain contingency planning, such as what is envisioned by the National Contingency Plan. Through the paradox of organizing, the organizational roots of a crisis, such as the accidental release of oil or hazardous substances, are recreated and amplified during an interorganizational response to that crisis. I discuss several dynamics that were reproduced by the response system awakened by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They included risk amplification and system degradation due to the structure of the response, through processes including “anarchy,” “drift,” and “fire fighting.” They also involved the tasks of making sense of information within the response effort, which erases detail, limits whether data can be used to detect anomalies, and encourages responders to develop their own plausible rationales for equivocal data so that they can resume interrupted tasks. These dynamics go beyond the narratives that dominate standard regulatory accounts of accidents. They point to how multiagency response can intensify the paradox of organizing.
Keywords: environmental crisis, environmental law, organization theory, open systems, deepwater horizon, oil spills
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