Blog, Crisis Management

We Have as Much to Fear From Ourselves as We Do From Terrorists

Originally posted on The Huffington Post – January 24, 2014

“We have built a system, based on technology, that no human seems to understand…Convene the smartest minds in the world, off the record, and you don’t see a lot of confidence that anybody is on top of this.” — Donald Langevoort

As is well known by now, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, a chemical used in processing coal leaked from a plant run by Freedom Industries into the nearby Elk River, thereby contaminating drinking water for some 6,000 to 10,000 people in Charlestown, W.V. In addition, the water of hundreds of thousands of people in towns located downstream was tainted as well. The contamination happened because the water filtration plant for the town was located directly downstream from the chemical plant.

Since the tanks in which the chemicals were stored didn’t fall under state or federal inspection programs and weren’t considered hazardous, environmental permits to operate the plant were not required. Needless to say, these decisions are now up for review, especially since it was found that the tanks had serious cracks that had not been repaired.

As of this writing, Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy in order to limit its liability for the spill.

If a terrorist had deliberately set out to disrupt a town and raise heightened fears about the safety of drinking water and other essentials for life, then he or she couldn’t have picked a better place and way to do it. As much as acts of terrorism naturally raise our fears, we have as much, if not more, to fear from the technologies that permeate our lives and on which we depend.

The sad fact of the matter is that not a day goes by without the occurrence, or near-occurrence, of a major crisis, disaster, tragedy, etc. If this weren’t bad enough, more than one crisis a day is no longer uncommon. Indeed, it has become the norm.

We have created the kind of society that increasingly is prone to all kinds of crises: corporate malfeasance, crime, “death of the middle class,” dysfunctional politics, economic/financial, housing bubbles, environmental, chronic unemployment and underemployment, mass shootings, natural disasters, poor educational system, severe income inequality leading to a new “Gilded Age,” terrorism, etc. And, this is only a partial list!

Worst of all, crises are no longer separate or distinct. Instead, they are highly interconnected. Individual crises interact in strange and unpredictable ways such that they not only reinforce, but actually contribute to one another. Any crisis is capable of setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other crises. This is why it is not enough to be prepared for one and only one type of crisis. One must be prepared for a system of crises that can and will strike simultaneously.

It is as though as a civilization we are no longer content to leave crises to chance, but have deliberately gone out of our way to ensure that they occur 24/7/365. There is no doubt whatsoever that they are bigger, costlier, and deadlier. And, the time between them has shrunk precipitously.

The good news is that even if it is humanely impossible to prevent all crises, there is much that has been learned from the field of crisis management that can help lower the chances and the ill effects of the next crises.

The social, emotional, and financial costs of crises are enormous. Their impacts not only reach beyond traditional geographic borders (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima), but also extend far into the future. For example, the disposal or storing of toxic nuclear waste affects generations to come. In short, crises don’t respect the rules of ordinary space and time. In fact, they don’t respect any of the “normal rules” of civilization. In a word, crises now have the potential to affect everyone everywhere.

If we are to stand any hope of being better prepared for the worst that now happens almost on a daily basis, then more than crisis experts alone need to have a modicum of understanding of crisis management. The general public needs to push public officials and corporate executives for better preparation before the next calamities occur. We cannot leave thinking about and preparations for crises to experts, corporate executives, and government officials alone. An informed citizenry is an absolute necessity.