Sunday, July 25, 2010

Asymmetrical accolades: Why preventing a crisis almost never makes you a hero

A friend recently related to me that the quality assurance manager at the pharmaceutical firm he used to work for was an absolute stickler for one thing: There had to be a convincing cleanup procedure for anything anyone proposed to bring into a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. If it got on the floor or in the air or on the walls or in the production line and it wasn't supposed to be there, there had to be a way to get rid of it completely. Either that or it wasn't coming into the building.

This friend explained that the quality assurance program run by this man was so good that the Food and Drug Administration pointed other firms to it as an example of what they should be doing. So, how did people at the company feel about this man? Well, they didn't really like him. I imagined that to his fellow employees this man must have been like an insect buzzing around their heads--a beneficial insect, to be sure--but a buzzing insect nevertheless.

It is doubtful that this man will ever receive an award for the deaths and illnesses averted because his diligence prevented impure drugs from reaching the public. Of course, there is no good way to gauge the number of lives saved or illnesses prevented. And, there is no one act people can point to as the clear reason that these deaths and illnesses never occurred. There is just the everyday heavy-handed enforcement of the safety and quality rules which only become an issue when they are violated.

In our thinking we place a premium on the dramatic rescue, the last-minute escape, and the ingenious on-the-fly technical solution. They all make good copy for reporters, and they make good stories for television and movies.

Who would argue that Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a disabled U. S. Airways jet in the Hudson River in January 2009 without a single death, is not a hero? The engines shut down after the plane hit a large flock of geese forcing the pilot to land without power. Sullenberger and his crew received many honors for their virtually flawless handling of the emergency.

No one should diminish the heroism of the pilot and crew of Flight 1549 on that January day. But who will sing the praises of the designers of jet engines who made them capable of withstanding almost all other bird strikes? Who can tote up the number of lives spared as result?

And, what about the workers at various government agencies who were given the gruesome task of finding places near New York City where geese live, corralling them and then taking them away to be gassed? Other workers coated goose eggs with corn oil to kill the unhatched goslings. Will they be given awards for helping to avert similar incidents in the future?

The movie Apollo 13 dramatized the ingenuity of American aerospace engineers as they skillfully improvised ways to get the crippled spacecraft home. Of particular significance was an improvised designed for adapting carbon dioxide filters from the command module for use on the lunar module. The astronauts had been forced to retreat there after an explosion hobbled the command module. The design had to be made using only materials available on the spacecraft. Again, no one should diminish the achievements of the people who saved the crew of Apollo 13. Without these adapted filters, the crew would have died from the buildup of carbon dioxide coming from their own respiration.

Yet, all the thousands of workers around the country who have designed and manufactured the components that have allowed countless hours of safe space travel will never have a movie made about them. (Yes, there have been two spacecraft lost since Apollo 13, namely, two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia. Space travel has always been risky. The culprits in each case were found, a faulty O-ring and a wing damaged during takeoff, respectively. But given the complexity of the U. S. manned spaceflight program, the track record is still very good.)

Moving our focus elsewhere, we can differentiate between the accolades given to those who make conquest through force, and those who do it by other means. In The Art of War the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu outlines an approach to winning that is based on stratagem, not fighting:
Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

The Chinese must still be taking lessons from Sun Tzu. While American military forces are in their eighth year of fighting in Iraq--a move designed to put American military power at the center of the world's most important oil region--the Chinese have been busy sewing up long-term commercial agreements for the delivery of oil and natural gas. And, they have been buttressing their efforts with economic aid to countries with critical natural resources such as petroleum and iron ore. They have also been busy buying companies or interests in companies with large deposits of key minerals.

No Chinese generals will be receiving promotions for such actions. And, it is difficult to make compelling military recruitment commercials from such material. It may be that the Chinese culture recognizes and rewards such stratagems. One might say that the Chinese have pursued such a strategy out of military weakness. But it may also be that Chinese leaders simply compared costs and found the cheapest, most efficacious way of gaining access to needed resources. They avoided military action and still achieved their goals. But there were no heroic acts to point to. And, nobody became a hero for having averted a catastrophe that might have resulted from military intervention in places having the resources the Chinese so desperately need for their industrial machine.

America seems stuck in the past. Without a centrally-directed industrial policy we have relied on a combination of military and private commercial power to secure needed imports. Perhaps the Chinese were quicker to realize that such a paradigm can no longer be effective given the costs exacted by those who are occupied.

In comparing the Chinese and American methods of securing access to critical resources I am not recommending either. Rather curtailment and conservation, relocalization of production, and reworking the infrastructure to consume far less energy seems the more prudent course. And, yet this is a preventive strategy. It is designed to avert a catastrophe in the future, not respond to an emergency apparent to the public right now.

As such those advocating this course are put in the unenviable position of the quality assurance manager mentioned above. Their ideas might save humanity from a catastrophic future. But since most people on the planet believe such a future is a mere fantasy, sustainability advocates are sometimes regarded in a worse light than the quality assurance manager whom the people at the pharmaceutical firm begrudgingly accepted as necessary. By and large the public still believes our situation is not critical and that heroic technological measures will solve all our major ecological problems.

The public is more interested in someone who tells them that nuclear power and biofuels will provide our future energy needs without any sacrifice than it is in an obscure British economist who has designed a system for a more equitable distribution of declining energy resources using a market-based quota system. The public is beguiled by heroic technological measures such as seeding the ocean with iron or building a space umbrella to help address the problem of climate change. Switching to bicycling for short trips and reducing meat intake seem like unnecessary sacrifices.

If a catastrophe of sufficient magnitude to get the public's attention were to occur--a sudden rise in sea level or a rapid, persistent decline in world oil production--then those in the sustainability movement would move from being prophets to being emergency responders. Maybe this would finally give them the recognition and respect they deserve. Only by then it will be too late to avert the worst.


Eiskrystal said...

-U. S. Airways jet in the Hudson River in January 2009 without a single death, is not a hero?-

Not including the geese of course.

A good post, but your example left a bad taste.

Weaseldog said...

This is a good post.

Eiskrystal, I'm not sure what you didn't like about the example. Were you thinking of the slaughter of them for the safety of our fuel guzzling aircraft?

I agree that Iraq could've turned out so much differently. As Saddam clearly made concession after concession, it seemed evident that he was as desperate for peace as Bush was for war. He even offered to step down as leader of Iraq.

A different president might have been able to broker a different arrangement with Iraq. One that would have the Iraqis as trading partners now, and made Baghdad an exciting new vacation spot for Americans. Instead we're still fighting a forgotten war there.

But then if Bush had been that kind of president, then he wouldn't be famous for starting wars as he made clear that he wished to be remembered for.