Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Risk Is In the Eye of the Beholder

This May, the dredging of the Hudson River finally began. After nearly two decades of insistence by environmentalists that the PCB-contaminated muck be scooped off the river bottom and hauled off, it’s finally going away. At least, away from the Hudson River. Of course, “Away” to some is “Here” to others. What’s interesting is that this material, which prompts such intense concern in environmentalists in the Northeast, is barely causing a stir in the community where it will end up. Most of the folks near the disposal site on the Texas/New Mexico border who will suddenly be neighbors to millions of tons of PCB-contaminated river bottom don’t seem all that worried. Same stuff. Dramatically different perceptions. Why?

Maybe it’s just the fact that PCBs can do more harm in a dynamic environment like a river than they can in a secure landfill. In the river the PCBs can harm the aquatic environment and get into fish that people eat. In the landfill, which is lined and below which are several hundred feet of impervious clay (and no groundwater below that) the possibility of exposure to the environment, or people, is practically zero.

But try locating a low-risk facility like that near a lot of communities and, scientific realities aside, the answer would be a resounding “NO WAY!” It’s a safe bet that none of the environmentalists in the Northeast who wanted the material dredged out of the river would have allowed it to be disposed of anywhere near their cities or towns. Yet just five miles from the disposal site sits Eunice New Mexico, population about 2,500, only a handful of whom are worried about the sort of place that would have a lot of other people freaked out.

Why is something that stirs such fierce concern in some, not threatening to others? It’s a great example of how the meaning of the word “risk” is less a matter of scientific fact and more a matter of perception and perspective.

To some, the very word “chemicals” evokes fear, and conjures word associations with “danger” “cancer” “toxic” or “deadly”. This is the risk perception phenomenon of Stigma. The word “chemicals” has been branded with sweepingly negative connotations. In addition, chemical risks are for the most part undetectable by our senses, which leaves us feeling powerless to protect ourselves, and that raises our fears. Also, people commonly fear risks imposed on them by others, especially by industry (the PCBs came from General Electric operations decades ago). And many people are culturally predisposed to a “We’re all in this together” communitarian, government-intervention kind of social organization, the kind of social structure required to solve big environmental problems. Subconsciously people feel that environmental issues like the Hudson PCBs, and climate change, are rallying calls that strengthen the way they think society is supposed to work. So they tend to play those risks up.

Then there are folks like those in Eunice, such as lifelong resident Mayor Matt White, with whom I recently spoke. He notes that “chemicals” means something different to people born and raised in a town with 50-60 oil wells, where the “real” risk is hydrogen sulfide gas brought up with the oil that has killed one or two people in the past few decades. They have a familiarity with at least this sort of chemical risk that puts the overall feeling of chemical risks, including PCBs, in a less worrisome perspective. They also depend economically on the health of the oil industry and, indirectly, the chemical industry that buys that oil. So the benefit of the wells outweighs the risk they accept as part of the bargain. The contaminated dredgings will mean an additional 15-20 jobs at the disposal facility, jobs that pay $40-50,000 a year. That’s an additional part of the risk-benefit equation in Eunice, a tradeoff which always colors perceptions of risk.

And Mayor White describes his community as a conservative group of people who have a more libertarian view of government’s role, more independent-minded folks who are less inclined to think government should go butting in all the time. To these Individualists, sweeping environmental problems, including like climate change, call for a social response that cuts against their independent-minded grain, so they often play such risks down.

There is no right or wrong here, just valid reasons why the same risk can look one way to one person and different to the next. Feel one way to one person and feel different to the next. That’s what’s really going on under all those fierce arguments about environmental risks after all. They are battles over perspectives, battles over underlying worldviews. The facts are just the weapons by which the battle is fought. The facts aren’t never the reasons for fighting it in the first place. It’s how people see those facts.

In this case there was no battle. Both perspectives “won”. They got what they wanted. But there is a valuable lesson here for all the times such issues get contentious. “Risk” is in the eye of the beholder. There is no “truth”. The facts can look quite different from different perspectives, and anyone arrogantly claiming that their view of the facts is “right”, is arrogantly denying the valid concerns of the other parties and pouring gasoline on the fire. Solutions will be a lot easier to reach if the parties to these conflicts respect the reasons why people feel the way they do about the issue, and account for those feelings and worldviews in the steps proposed for moving forward.