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Maxed out

The voices that disagree



Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

This is one of those seemingly simple life lessons most everybody learns in childhood and then spends much of their adult life forgetting. It's generally taught metaphorically in response to a child's attempted justification - "Johnny did it." - for doing something incredibly stupid, dangerous or both. "And if Johnny jumped off a bridge would you?" is the dominant variant of the clichéd answer. As a public service, I'd just like to say, "Depends on the height of the bridge and what's underneath it," is not the answer your parents are looking for. It's a rhetorical question, dude. The only appropriate answer, as it turns out, is remorseful silence.

The antithesis of this rule, and the avenue for real learning, is: just because you might get hurt, doesn't mean you shouldn't give 'er a go anyway. There are any number of valid, scientific reasons a six-year-old might jump - or, let's be honest, urge his friend to jump - off the roof of a house.

Testing whether an open umbrella might slow your fall sufficiently to keep you from getting badly hurt if you decide to try that technique on a higher structure, a bridge, say, is one. It doesn't, in case you were wondering.

Refining the experiment using a parachute of your own design cut out of a canvas tarp shows real scientific curiosity. Assuming you wait until your friend gets his cast off to test it also shows real human compassion as well. The fact neither of you have any grasp of aerodynamics is no reason not to do it; it is, in fact, the vast pool of ignorance you're trying to overcome in the first place by such an experiment. And sadly, no, it doesn't work either. But it does provide some insight as to why parachutes aren't made out of a single, round piece of canvas.

Just because you can cut your sister's bangs with your grandmother's pinking shears isn't a good enough reason. Just because you can grow Sea Monkeys TM in your mom's best crystal bowl isn't a good enough reason. Just because you can play your armpit like a symphonic farting instrument isn't a good enough reason... especially in church... during the dramatic pause in the minister's sermon... with your parents sitting less than an arm's length away.

Unfortunately, many of us, most of us even, forget that basic lesson as we grow older and smarter. Wisdom does not come with age. Knowing more stuff comes with age. Knowing even more devious ways to transfer the risk to your less bright friends - complete strangers even - comes with age.

But the wisdom of knowing when not to do something just because you can do it remains an elusive commodity. Especially where money is involved.

A couple of decades ago, when Monsanto began selling genetically modified seeds - Roundup ready seeds - naysayers issued Cassandra warnings about the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. I'm not talking about the Frankenfood fringe, who reacted to GM foods like frightened cave dwellers reacted to fire, but the few scientists and ecologists who warned that genetic mutation weeds would evolve to combat the attack on their survival.

For its part, Monsanto belittled, derided and generally dismissed the critics. "No f'ing way; it'll never happen." was pretty much their response.

Their response now is, "Okay, we were wrong. But let's not make too big a case out of it. It's not that big a problem."

"It" is robust variants of Roundup-resistant weeds that have popped up in North America and several other countries. As reported in the New York Times, farmers who've been growing Monsanto's seeds are having to add more, and more toxic, herbicides to the brew they spray to deal with super weeds. Don't get excited; that's super weeds, not super weed.

How super? "Pigweed can grow three inches a day and reach seven feet or more, choking out crops; it is so sturdy that it can damage harvesting equipment." Damage harvesting equipment? Who needs IEDs.

Okay, so one example doesn't prove the point. Which sounds vaguely similar to BP's mea culpa over the Deepwater Horizon gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. "It wasn't our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up," say company spokesfolks. Huh?

Critics of deep ocean oil drilling have warned about this since engineers made the concept feasible. Companies like BP have dismissed their concerns. "Our technology is failsafe. Such a thing couldn't happen." Which is why they and other oil companies so vigorously lobbied the Bush/Cheney White House to reduce safety standards and cap potential liability in the event their pipedreams of safety were just that.

If we search our collective memories, we'd realize this most recent example of failsafe technology failing has a certain déjà vu quality to it. In 1979, under the same ocean in the same gulf with the same kind of pressure-related blowout preventer, quelle surprise, the same thing happened. Ixtoc 1, the second worst crude oil catastrophe, gushed 140 million gallons. The same fixes were tried then as now... unsuccessfully. It took two relief wells and 10 months to staunch the flow. Obviously, the safety technology's come a long way in the past 20 years and we're all 20 years wiser.

But BP's playbook is as unwavering as their media-trained spokesfolks' responses are inane. "Couldn't happen." "Wasn't our fault." "It's not that bad, only 1,000 barrels a day." "Make that 5,000 barrels." "Okay, maybe 20,000." "Meant to say 60,000 barrels... but no more."

We could go into a primer on the role of derivatives and securitized assets in the global banking meltdown at this point but that might be flogging a dead horse.

The point is, no matter how smart we think we are, we're not as smart as we need to be. If we're going to make better decisions, we need to listen to more voices and, particularly, we need to listen to the voices that disagree with us.

As Tiny Town embarks on its long-delayed efforts to hammer out an Official Community Plan, it seems as though our valiant leaders want to hamstring the exercise from the outset by hogtying it to Whistler 2020, our planning document-cum-Bible.

Whatever input the promised public process elicits will be viewed through the filter of Whistler 2020 and the only opportunity to significantly shift direction will be through the 2020 task forces.

Funny, the first rule of strategic planning is to be, well, strategic. That means open to the possibility of change. Especially if your surrounding environment - the qualities that helped define prior plans - have significantly changed.

But that takes wisdom.



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