The Beach Is for Vacationing, Not Putting Down Stakes

We lived through another one: a hurricane that turned our coastal areas into raging rivers and deep swamps overnight. You’d think we’d learn. And we will. But it will take time. Before people give up, that is.

It’s not easy to come to terms with new realities. Yes, I know, some people say nothing is changing. Climate deniers, they are called. People who never learned how to read a thermometer. But one cannot allow ignorance to be one’s guideposts.

People living in our coastal areas will suffer more and more as climate change progresses. Floods and winds will take their toll. There will be no stopping it. Meanwhile, we’ll spend massive amounts of money denying it. Rebuilding where no one should rebuild.

Much of the cost will be borne by the public, that is, us taxpayers, including those of us who are less imprudent in our choices. But not all of it will. The individual residents of vulnerable areas will take it on the chin, too. Financially. Emotionally.

I understand humans’ seemingly innate desire to live by the water. Indeed, water is the source of life. Commerce. Pleasure. But it’s also where danger lurks. Especially when the wind and warm air conspire with it.

We will learn. But it will take time. Another lesson, Vera, in human nature. And the danger in succumbing to risky urges.

Where You Choose To Live Could Have Dire Consequences

Watching news reports last week about explosions at one of my former plants in Crosby, Texas, rekindled these thoughts in me once again. To be precise, the plant really wasn’t mine. I didn’t own it. But I was responsible for it. I was the CEO of the company that owned and operated the plant.

But that’s not the point. The point is this: Why do humans fail to address threats until they’ve materialized?

The most notable example was 9/11. We had been warned that terrorists might fly planes into buildings. But we ignored the warnings and then, when the threat turned into reality, made excuses by claiming no one could have foreseen such an event (even though some did).

There are countless other examples. The Crosby plant is just the latest. The situation there was avoidable. So why was it allowed to happen?

Vera, the answer to my first question (why do we fail to address threats?) is this: I’m not sure.

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to address threats when there’s time to do something about it. Complacency? Poor judgment? Laziness? Lack of concern? I’m not entirely sure.

But I do know one factor that plays a role: money.

Solutions often require spending money, either on capital or higher operating expenses. But you get ahead in corporate America by cutting costs, not increasing them. So the incentives reward deferral and avoidance. And the system usually doesn’t tolerate people who force it to confront risks, especially ones that require money to ameliorate.

(As an aside, this is why I’m bemused by people who say we don’t need regulation. All that tells me is the person is utterly clueless and has never run a business that has the capacity to inflict harm (to people, the financial system, the environment, etc.). Opinion grounded in ignorance can do a lot of harm and we’re seeing that play out on the national stage today. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Well, I suppose there isn’t much you or I can do about it. Money rules. Safety often doesn’t.

So does that mean we can do nothing about it? Not quite.

We can limit our own exposure to avoidable risks.

In that vein, here is one thing we can do to reduce those risks materially: avoid living near train tracks or chemical or fertilizer plants (or certain other industrial plants for that matter).

I don’t want to share details because I don’t want to risk giving anyone an idea that may not have occurred to them. Suffice it to say the risks associated with living near train tracks, fertilizer plants and certain chemical plants are much higher than most people think.

Take Toulouse, France as an example. On September 21, 2001, a plant that was owned by a sister company of Arkema Inc. (the company that owns and operates the Crosby, Texas plant) had an incident. The explosion killed 31 people and injured more than 2,400. Property loss was massive. The only reason the explosion didn’t receive more attention was that it came on the heels of 9/11, which, understandably, still captured America’s attention.

In short, where you choose to live can have dire consequences.

If you can’t avoid proximity, at least be sure not to live downwind. Know the direction of the prevailing winds in your area.

I made the mistake of failing to take this into consideration when we moved to Westtown, Pa., not far downwind from a chemical plant that could put the community at risk. I hope not to make the same mistake again. (Fortunately, nothing happened at Westtown when we lived there, and, of course, I hope that nothing ever does.)

Now I realize, in most cases, the risk of something bad happening isn’t high. But I also know that humans tend to think the worst that could happen has already happened. Yet reason tells us that’s merely an embedded bias and isn’t supported by fact or reality. The worst that could happen may be around the corner.

And although the risk of something really bad happening may not be high, the risk of something really bad happening if an event does occur can be very high. Indeed, it can be catastrophic.

I’m aware of one chemical plant that could threaten (lethally) people 18 miles downwind. And I know that groundwater is contaminated at and around many chemical and other industrial sites in the U.S. (and other countries, too). And that a lot of bad stuff (including carcinogens) still spews from stacks and plants.

I’m also aware that few people know what’s being transported on our rail lines and what could happen if a breach occurred, in just one rail car, in a populated area. If they did, something would change.

But as it is, the companies and their lobbyists bend laws and regulations their way via their campaign contributions and other means and we go on our merry way — unless and until catastrophe strikes, that is.

Nothing good can come from living near a chemical plant or other industrial site that handles or produces toxic or hazardous substances or emits such substances into the air or disposes of them into the ground.

And nothing good can come from living near a train track.

But a lot bad can come from living near a chemical plant or train track. The fact that most people don’t appreciate what can happen doesn’t make the risk any less real.

It would be nice if we could count on our fellow human’s to avoid doing things that put others at risk. It would be nice. But we can’t.

Therefore, each person has to take responsibility for his or her own safety, Vera. We can’t eliminate all of the risks. A plane could fall from the sky onto our house. A driver could cross the road and hit us head on (I lost an aunt and cousin this way). The possibilities for something bad happening are seemingly limitless. But you can’t control what you can’t control. And, frankly, I don’t worry about those risks.

But there are things we can do to minimize unnecessary risks. One thing we can do is to be mindful about where we live.

Know your surroundings. There is no upside to taking avoidable risks when better options exist.

Unprecedented Is Irrelevant

This latest article in the Financial Times reiterates the excuse given by Arkema that the flood at its Crosby plant, which started a stream of events that ultimately led to evacuations of both plant personnel and nearby residents and businesses (mile and a half radius), deflagration of certain organic peroxides stored at the site, intense fires and pollutants being expelled into the air (and possibly ground and groundwater), and damage to the environment, was unprecedented. Continue reading

What To Do When Confronted by Bad Behavior

Everyone is confronted (aka victimized) by bad behavior from time to time. Sometimes it comes at the hands of a boss. Or spouse. Or friend. Or customer service rep. Or fellow driver. Or any number of other people whose paths cross ours.

It was tempting to write bad “people” versus bad “behavior.” But that would be an overreach. I used to think there were bad people. And perhaps there are. But I now try to distinguish people from their behavior, recognizing that all (or at least the vast majority of us) do some bad things at times. Moreover, I’m weary of the demonization of people, which seems to be a national pastime among certain groups. So I’ll focus on behavior.

All of us are imperfect of course. All of us wear gray hats. When we think our hat is pure white, or others’ hats are pure black, we delude ourselves, not in a benign way, but in a toxic way. Unfortunately, it’s a story that sells, particularly in times such as this. But it’s based in something other than reality.

In any case, no matter where people land on the morality and ethics continuum, people are capable of behaviors that can fairly be described as bad — at least from our perspective. Basically, it means it’s hurtful to us. Or disadvantages us or others in a way that seems unfair to us. You’ll know it when you see it, Vera. And when you feel it. And I guarantee you, you will see and feel it in your life. Perhaps many times.

I’m writing about this because I haven’t been very good at dealing with bad behavior, at least not in my personal life. I’m better at it in my professional life, that is, when representing people or organizations as their lawyer. I suppose it’s easier in that context because it’s not personal with me and, therefore, I’m not emotionally invested. In one’s personal life, it’s hard not to react emotionally.

So what have I learned over the years about reacting to bad behavior? Continue reading