Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Oblivious Ignoring the Obvious

By Bob Ferris

Sitting inside a small dwelling captivated by an air quality index (AQI) that for three days was worse than Beijing’s while entertaining house guests whose Rogue River rafting trip was derailed by unhealthy air gives one time and cause for thought.  Particularly when some of that time is spent also looking at the tragedy of Houston and other parts of Texas in the wake of Harvey.  These all strike me as threads of the same sad cloth.  

Which cloth?   It is the deadly and devastating fabric woven by greed and inattention that seems to be worn proudly by those careless in their choices of politicians and nearly gleeful in their acceptance of flawed policies.  Unfortunately when enough of them wear this cloth we all do.  In this, these oblivious folks are much like cattle fed feathers who think it food because it is covered by molasses.  And the Trump administration is buying sweetener in the guise of unfulfillable economic promises by the trainload so that this segment of the population will think deregulation a robust and beneficial idea.  

The idea that the AQI for a span of time in Eugene, Oregon increased ten-fold is profound when you experience it and sobering when you understand that the citizens of Beijing live with these levels daily.  As much of this problem in China relates to coal use in power plants it strikes me as beyond incredible that any rational person would argue that coal is the answer to anything.  But pushing coal they are while using the sledge hammer of jobs to knock down opposition and crush the ideas of regulations or risk.  

There is a pathetic sadness here because experience tells us that being a successful president is not about selling the American people an old technology that causes them and others harm but success comes from leading all towards a future approach that benefits us all. The fact that this president does not even understand what he sells and thinks that “clean coal” is about a post-mining process rather than the chemical make-up of the product just causes head shaking of a monumental magnitude. Which makes us jump to Houston and Harvey to look at more of these threads.

In my consulting days I would visit Houston frequently.  I was always amazed and somewhat sickened by the skyline of buildings some purposely designed to look like gold.  It was city built on naked avarice and seemed not only unembarrassed by this fact but proud.  It is not surprising that this environment anchored in greed was fertile ground for the likes of Joel Osteen and others willing to remold or twist a religion to mirror the moral character of this city and others of similar ilk.  This manufactured disconnect from morality was designed to license sanctimony.

I would argue that there is nearly a co-evolutionary relationship between the sort of trophy capitalism we see in Houston and this so-called Prosperity Gospel that includes Joel Osteen as well as Donald Trump's spiritual ally, the also thrice-married Paula White.  The above clip is from an appearance on the Jim Bakker Show (yes that Jim Bakker).

But then comes the deluge.  Now to those watching with eyes wide open, we see two things immediately.  The first is that Houston’s growth without consequence attitude was a failed approach as it made the city vulnerable to disasters (1,2,3,4).  Good planning may slow projects down but it is also designed, however imperfectly, to make sure that most structures are not built where they should not be like at the bottom of a dry lake bed.  This crucial component to development was stomped out by the "congregation" on their way to worship the golden calf.  

The second apparent factor is climate change.  The storm Houston experienced was more than likely made worse by the very picked fruits of Houston’s wealth—the exploitation of fossil fuels.  Moreover, the industry’s denial of the impacts of carbon dioxide in order to make more profits longer contributed to the level of damage from this event (1,2,3).  While there might be some celebration of the karmic nature of this, I think we would all be better served by focusing on empathy and correction rather than retribution.   

But all beasts, for better or worse, want to survive and conservative beasts tend to want to survive in their present state without change.  Here we see that we must “pray” for those in the path of the storm and then pray for those who survived.   This praying implies God’s hand in all of this--his (or her) responsibility--but not ours.  The more and harder we pray for divine intervention the less we are able to embrace the concepts that poor land-use planning and lack of climate change response are the driving forces in the disaster.  In the illogic here we are meant to believe that putting one’s hands together and shouting to the heavens are more effective actions than filling sand bags, stockpiling water, collecting canned goods or—heaven forbid—providing shelter in a mega-church created in the name of one who was clearly dedicated to charity and helping the down-trodden.  

We should not be surprised that Joel Osteen (above) first said his church was inaccessible when it was not and then claimed he held back aid because he was not asked.  My sense of true charity is that it is mostly an unexpected and unsolicited act.  If it is what you do naturally; there is no hesitation. And why would one expect that charity would spring from a well drilled expressly to wash away the guilt of greed and shift blame for any consequences of these acts of our exploitation to God?

The large question here is Houston’s future and whether or not this wake-up call will lead to changes there and a realization that we need to do better when the city is rebuilt and when we look at infrastructure projects elsewhere.  We need to follow Japan’s model of rebuilding an modernizing after being largely destroyed during World War II rather than London’s model of rebuilding roughly the same structures on the same streets after their great fire of 1666.  

I worry, however, that the enculturated illogic of Houston will persist.  Perhaps too much effort has been invested in climate denial, pushing America to illogic, and in side-stepping the responsibility of exploitative actions to grasp the true opportunity offered by this tragedy.  Part of my doubts come from a recent story on CNN about a statue of the Virgin Mary “surviving” a fire during Harvey.  Though the piece did not identify this as a “miracle” per se the implication was there in the imagery.  What does this story say about our society that anyone, anywhere would accept that something that was inflammable not burning in a fire was remarkable let alone miracle-like?  And why did CNN not take a picture of a “surviving” rock or garden gnome instead if they did not want to communicate this idea?   

Hopefully, my fears are unfounded and we will wake up.  But to do  this we will have to overcome this problem of the obscenely rich empowering the supremely unqualified while choking the life out of institutions designed to enhance our country’s human capital and protect our status as world leaders.  I also hope that this current administration is the bottom of our fall rather than the start and that we are learning from the reactions from those in business, the arts, sciences and from moral leaders that Charlottesville and Houston have to be turning points.  

I speak in terms of "we" above rather than just of those in Houston because at the end of the day we all pay for the destruction and restoration of Houston either through government funds, insurance premiums or elevated gasoline prices.  The results, therefore, should act to restore all of us otherwise they are meaningless at a time when we need great meaning and shared success to reunite us.  

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