Tuesday, July 9, 2013

History–A Source of Entertainment, Not Knowledge

Many of us have heard the old adage (and the many variants thereof) that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.

I wonder if the truest variant is Hegel’s when he said “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.”

In the spirit that stories resonate better than facts and figures, I present the following illustrations that demonstrate Hegel’s point.

Natural Disasters

In the City of Calgary, despite the many politicians and other leaders who acted surprised about the floods, we have a few facts that we can’t deny.

1. The city has faced devastating floods repeatedly in its past and as recently as 8 years ago.

2. The areas stricken the most in each flood are built upon flood plains known to be at high risk of flooding.

3. The City and the Province knew the risks of building in high risk areas but permitted it for decades anyway, lighting the fuse on a time-bomb that keeps going off.

4. Some of the areas are so obviously at risk that a property buyer doesn’t need to be told that they are in risk of catastrophic loss but they buy the property anyway.  Some residents admitted that they have known the risk for years but decided to remain as they “waited for the government to fix things”.

So despite warnings, recommendations and the like in the past, status quo remains and construction will likely continue in high risk areas, threatening life and property in the future.

Meanwhile … in US politics

I find US politics to be a fascinating reflection on the electorate and a great source of support for Hegel’s thoughts on history.  Here are some examples.

1. Former South Carolina Governor  Mark Sanford was found guilty of a number of inappropriate actions as Governor and faced impeachment proceedings.  Despite being disgraced as Governor, abusing taxpayer funds, having an extramarital affair while in office and the like, he has now been re-elected as a Representative from South Carolina, thus demonstrating high levels of support for his “character and values”.

2. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner who was forced to resign from Congress for inappropriate texting of a body part that shares commonality with his last name is now a front runner in the NYC mayoral race (even as he warns that more photos of him may surface in the future).  I guess he is proof that if we choose to stick it out in times of adversity, rising to the occasion, we can overcome anything.

3. Former NYC Governor Elliot Spitzer, disgraced and removed from power in an escort scandal as well as a campaign contribution scandal, is now running for the office of NYC Comptroller.

4. Proving that life has its ironies, Kristin Davis, the madam who ran the organization that brought Mr. Spitzer down, is running against him for the same comptroller position after serving prison time for running her less-than-ideal organization.  Ironically, Mr. Spitzer did not receive any jail time for partaking of the services that Ms. Davis’ organization offered.

5. Jesse Jackson Jr. easily won re-election of his Congressional seat despite facing charges at the time of wire fraud, mail fraud, inappropriate use of campaign funds and a number of other things and while being off the campaign trail as he was treated for a number of “exhaustion” related mental and physical illnesses.  After being re-elected despite the charges against him, he plead guilty, with prosecutors recommending in June of 2013 that he be sentenced to 4 years in jail.

I could go on but the list is too long.  However, it is true that we get the government that we deserve, isn’t it? :-)

And then there is national security

Senior military officers and advisors to the US government warned leaders for years that one of the greatest threats to national security were foreign agents commandeering US commercial aircraft and flying them into American buildings and landmarks.  I was told of this as a civilian in the early 90’s so I suspect that it was known long before I was told.

Ahhhh …. the list is never ending.

Why we can’t find a better way to live?

Human beings have a great gift in our seemingly unlimited levels of resilience.  We appear to be able to overcome everything.

This ability to overcome almost anything thrown in our path is also our greatest weakness.  Our belief that we can overcome everything tends to make us play down prevention with the belief that we will do the best we can and just overcome whatever disaster befalls us.

Unfortunately, as I have seen in disaster preparedness meetings within organizations and governments, planners are paid to anticipate disasters far greater than anything citizens have experienced to-date or could even dream of.

Or would want to dream of.

Some of those disaster scenarios are in fact large enough to overcome even the greatest levels of human resilience.

Unfortunately, those same planners are hamstrung, knowing that they don’t have the money or other resources to deal with every threat and that to share the true threat levels with the world would paralyze everyone into fearing that “the ultimate disaster” is right around the corner.  The resulting panic that would ensue would create its own epic disaster.

And so the planners, advisors and leaders play the difficult game of balancing cost vs. risk while at the same time, keeping citizens contented and focused on ever-increasing consumption.

Interestingly, this ever-increasing consumption is building a new set of disasters for the planet but we don’t need to worry about those right now. 

After all, our children will be resilient enough to figure them out.

Won’t they???

Meanwhile, when the next disaster rolls around, which it will, we will fall back on our old standbys:

1. We will act surprised, supposedly caught off guard that we had no warnings that such an event was possible.

2. We will rise to the occasion, saving those who can be saved while we congratulate ourselves on our ingenuity for our quick response and our ability to create solutions on the fly.

3. We will get angry when we rediscover / relearn that this has happened before.

4. We will find someone else to blame.

5. We will demand action to prevent this from happening in the future.

6. We will go through the motions of doing something, analyzing data, creating reports and then burying them.

7. We will move on without actually changing anything.

8. We will get angry at anyone who points out how predictable we are as a species and how we keep repeating ourselves when it comes to disaster avoidance. We will also get angry at people who remind us that the world is not perfect and that merely thinking good thoughts is insufficient in creating a better world.

That’s assuming that the next challenge doesn’t overrun our level of resilience altogether.

Until then, history will serve as a source of entertainment and not as a warning to hold ourselves and our leaders to a higher level of accountability and preparedness.

And we will continue to ignore warnings, mainly because thinking about them disrupts what otherwise would be an easy Life for many of us.

Well … at least for now.

In service and servanthood,


Personal Note:

When I first started working on “interesting projects” in the early 90’s, I acquired a very deep respect for the many planners out there who do the best they can with what they have so that we can be safe.  Few know of the sacrifices they make, especially in the areas of their own personal health and their family relationships, in performing the tasks that they do.

I was presenting at a conference a few years ago and I was speaking to a colleague about the struggles that I had with the things I had been exposed to over the years.  I figured that someone I looked up to and who had much more experience than I with these things would have some words of wisdom for how to deal with them.

When I asked the question “How do you deal with this information and how do you sleep at night knowing what you know?” his answer was very telling.

“I try not to stay sober”.

A sobering statement indeed.

Addendum – July 11, 2013

The CBC reported today that experts are warning us that damaging water events such as those that occurred in Alberta and Toronto in recent weeks will likely become more the norm and that we need to invest heavily in infrastructure in order to protect life and property moving forward.

This resonates with things that I and others have written in the past about global climate change.  Too many people are trying to prevent it when it is quite possible that it is not preventable, regardless of whether it is a natural cyclical event or a man-made one.

And when people spend all their time arguing about how to prevent what may be unpreventable instead of how to survive and thrive within it, they may be so busy (and so distracted) that they won’t see the event that overwhelms them.

Addendum – July 23, 2013

Case in point.  It was announced today that Anthony Weiner, while disgraced and chased from office in 2011, participated in a new round of inappropriate behavior during the summer of 2012.

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