May 27, 2017

Excerpt from "Strangers in Their Own Land"

In the middle of Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild relays a debate between two conservative Louisianan men about who to blame for an underground plume of ethylene dichloride (EDC) that is slowly moving towards the pilings of the I-10 bridge. The EDC plume softens the clay it contacts, which could destabilize the bridge and lead to a collapse. The EDC plume occurred when a chemical company's pipeline started leaking. The two men are discussing who should be responsible for the spill.

The debate is really interesting. It works against bias about conservative voters being unthoughtful and inarticulate:

Mike: "For the first time, the state highway department is talking about closing down the I-10 without building another bridge. They can't dig down to bedrock because of that spongy EDC-soaked clay. That tells you that they [the mayor of Lake Charles and city engineers] understand the danger. It's reasonable to be scared of the bridge and to wish there had been better oversight. It's the principle doctors abide by: first do no harm."

Donny: "Don't jump on the company. They didn't know their pipe was leaking. They didn't realize that this was going to happen forty years back when they put the pipeline in."

Mike: "They can't say they didn't know in the 1970s what EDC would be doing to our clay today. Condea Vista and Conoco knew that EDC would ruin clay, because [the] industry conducted two different studies where they put the EDC into the local clay and it ruined it."

Donny: "They weren't convinced. Why would they believe these 'experts'? Just because some expert tells you X is true, doesn't mean X is true. You know, if you're making $1,000,000 a day on something and somebody wants you to stop it, you don't say that's the truth until you're really convinced it's the truth. I wouldn't have believed it."

Mike: "Companies contrive ignorance. They were saying: 'I'm going to believe what I want to believe even if you do give me scientific evidence.' They didn't react to information their own experts gave them."

Donny: "Experts can be wrong. You remember in 1963, when the seat belt law hit? I had a Pontiac that had a lap seat belt and I'd sit and wear it. The Chevys and Fords didn't have them. GMC trucks had a seat belt. So some people believed it was a good thing and others didn't. And later on, the regulators concluded that the lap belt wasn't the answer. So we'd all agreed to a silly regulation."

Mike: "If Condea Vista and Conoco want to hide their heads in the sand and not admit that EDC could break up clay underneath the I-10, then later, when they're found responsible, they should have to pay."

Donny: "You can't always be ready to blame the company, like those lawyers are all set to do."

Mike: "But what if it is their fault and it's your bridge? Suppose you're in a car and the bridge collapses because the clay is spongy. Then suppose you die, okay? Your family will say 'wait a minute.' The company knew they were wrecking the clay."

Donny: "You want everything to be perfect, for companies to make no mistakes, and you – and we – can't live like that. If you aim for perfection, then you're being overly cautious, because we have to be able to take risks. That's how they split the atom – risk. That's how they made vaccines – risk. They were daring. A lot of good things happen because people dare to take risks. With all these environmental regulations, we're being too cautious. We're avoiding bad instead of maximizing good.

To live in civilization, you've got to take risks. There will be mistakes. You can't succeed by just always being perfect. People have to learn from their mistakes. We wouldn't have made the discoveries we have, live with the world of plastics we've got – car steering wheels, computers, the telephone wires I deal with – a lot of that's plastic. We wouldn't have built this country if we were all as risk-averse as you are. Do we want to go back to life in shacks reading by kerosene? Accidents happen. They used to spill kerosene. So what? Do you wish they hadn't ever used that?"

Mike: "No one's talking about going back to kerosene or never making mistakes."

Donny: "Regulation is like cement: you lay it down, and it hardens and stays there forever. Once something is regulated it's hard to un-regulate it. And so, year after year at first – it's just a little at a time – but then after a while it's like it is now, hardened cement. Everything is regulated. We're all stuck in cement.

... Children have a natural desire to dominate and try to get what they want. It only stops when one guy is afraid his lip is going to get busted. That's the natural order. Regulation breaks that up. We don't see the harm overregulation can do."

Mike: "I'm not talking about regulating everything or avoiding all mistakes. I just don't want us to make certain kinds of mistakes – they kinds that spill chemicals into water and give people rare brain cancers and endometriosis, or that lead innocent people to drive on collapsing bridges and die, children too. Why let that happen if there's a known way to prevent it?"

Donny: "I think we all have to take our knocks, sadly. We all make our own independent decisions. With its overload of regulations, the government is almost living our lives for us. You're not you anymore; you're it."

Mike: "So if you're driving the car on the I-10, of your own free will, and you get hurt, is it your own fault that you get hurt?"

Donny: "I would say a lot of it is. I can't say what my kids would say."

Mike: "You can get sick. I have been sick. And Mother Nature in Bayou d'Inde is sick. In fact, it has been made sick by people who think like you do. And it's hard to get to a place where people feel safe enough to live creative lives when the decisions of important leaders are based on bravado.

So what if you're a guy like me, who tries to find out the cause and effect of the EDC spill, and the companies won't say, and the state government won't say. So through the Freedom of Information Act, you receive 3,000 pages, redacted, blacked out so that you still don't know the truth about the spill. Why should we have to settle for that? And how could it be my own fault that I got hurt or killed?"

Donny: "If risk is to be reduced at all, it should be done by regular people themselves. I've taken some risks, when I was a logger with Willie Baldwin, and we built log bridges, chained them together, and drove over the bridge with a big load of logs. That was a risk, and one guy did get hurt. You have to leave with risk. But it's real people – not the government – that should be telling us what is or isn't too risky."

Mike: "But you need some people who make it their business to know more about very complicated things, so that all available information can be brought to bear on complex issues."

Donny: "But citizens can do the job. Some citizens complained about a smelly asphalt pit and it got closed."

Mike: "But what if the pit owners hadn't agreed to close it?"

Donny: "Then get a lawyer."

[rereads: 1, edits: 0, emphasis and brackets in the original]

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