What is “failing gracefully”?

27 Feb 2010

Engineers have to worry about failure. Sometimes your life depends on it.When bridges or buildings fail, it’s often catastrophic.

Beams weaken, crack, and twist. Rivets rip free, concrete crumbles, and often there’s way to stop the collapse midway or repair things.

With computers, on the other hand, they can fail quite gracefully. Many programs auto-save what you’re doing, so when they crash and shut down, you’re able to start the program back up, putting you right back where you left off. On older computers, if one program crashed, you often had to restart the whole computer, but now each program is more independent from the others, so they can crash without screwing up other programs. That’s graceful failure—or putting it in more positive terms, a form of resilience.

If we could make our societies like computers, so they would deal with glitches and collapse in a similar way, that would be wonderful. But we’re not software, and the concrete world has no “restart” button. It’s a much tougher nut to crack.

Yet we have to find a way to go back to fundamentals and somehow start over again. We’re now facing worldwide failures due to deep-seated problems—from climate change to looming energy shortages, from booming populations to food production that scars the land. Tinkering and small repairs aren’t going to cut it.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” as one expert puts it. As another expert says, we have no choice: “business-as-usual … is not an option.”

When I talk about these issues, people often ask me, “What’s the solution? What can we do?” Well, there are lots of things we can do, but no solutions. If we were facing just one of these problems—say, climate change—we might hope to tackle it. But when we’re facing a bunch of different challenges, it seems impossible that we’ll somehow solve them all. As one climate researcher said, “There is no solving the problem. There is no solving the problem. All it is is slowing the symptoms.”

But still, it’s not a reason to throw in the towel and give up. There are things we can do to slow down the symptoms. During breakdowns, we can break the fall. And most fundamentally, we can work to avoid the worst-case scenarios.

As political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon puts it in his book The Upside of Down:

Somehow we have to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse. In our organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planners call “graceful” failure.

When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved. Also, the part of the system that has been damaged recovers by drawing resources and information from undamaged parts.

Homer-Dixon argues that we should “reduce as much as we can the force of underlying tectonic stresses”—population growth, energy scarcity, environmental damage, climate change, and economic instability. Also we should “make our societies more resilient,” he says, and also much more, with “advance planning for breakdown … undoubtedly the most important.”

We need to start worrying about failure on a grand scale. We need to think about transforming our civilizations. Life as we know it is at stake.

That may sound overblown. But as another journalist covering climate change has written, “It’s no longer possible to delve into our relationship with the global environment without drawing conclusions that make you seem like a raving fanatic to those who have yet to delve.”

I agree, and I hope you’ll delve more here.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »