Spies, Scandals, & The Bay

San Francisco Bay

Today I was reading Alexandra Matthews’ post “U.S. Spies Use Custom Videogames to Learn How to Think” (WIRED) . Well, you can’t read about “spies” these days without thinking of Anna Chapman. The whole Russian spy ring has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller, including sex appeal. Or about scandals. Take “Climategate,” for instance. Today the third independent review found that University of East Anglia scientists in the Climatic Research Unit did not fudge data regarding climate change, as would-be undercover agent Andrew Montford stated in his book The Hockey Stick Illusion.

I read all this while taking a break from the FIFA World Cup semi-finals to consider the social impact of industry and development. What, say, is the social impact–the effect–of British Petroleum on the communities surrounding the Gulf? It’s not as sexy as Lindsay Lohan’s finger nail, but it sends the same message.

What about the social impact of, say, Redwood City Industrial Saltworks LLC: 12,000 more condos, houses, and apartments as well as 1 million square feet of offices and stores right along the front of an already overdeveloped bay area?

Haven’t heard of that one? Well, pull on your trench coat and sunglasses then follow me to this one little undeveloped corner of San Francisco, an area that Cargill Inc. and DMB Associates have partnered together to develop. DMB, by the way, is located right here in my home state of Arizona. And bear in mind that people like you and me have been working very hard since 1966 to clean up the bay from litter, pollutants, and over development in an effort to restore to it some ecological equity.

The Redwood City Industrial Saltworks LLC VP/GM calls their proposal, “Smart growth versus no growth” (San Jose Mercury News on www.savesfbay.org “Smart Growth or Environmental Mistake Redwood City’s Bay Waterfront”). No growth? A quick look on Google Earth should allay any concerns in that regard. Let’s not forget that it was the unbridled pursuit of growth that got us into our current economic fix.

Organizations like Cargill, DMB Associates, and British Petroleum conduct environmental impact assessments to rationalize the ecological impact that their development is likely to have on the proposed site. In addition, they’ll also sometimes conduct social impact assessments. In this case the Redwood City Council has already ordered an environmental impact assessment. The social impact is already touted by Cargill and DMB to be a decrease in commuting and an increase in wetlands. Brings to mind those BP commercials before their oil spill disaster in Gulf of  Mexico in which they painted themselves as ‘beyond petroleum’. Now the BP commercials show CEO Tony Hayward trying to convince the U. S. public that he cares.

So in light of Deepwater Horizon, we should ask ourselves where Cargill and DMB are going to be in 10 years as community members struggle to stabilize erosion along the bay front? Where will they be in 20 years as the fishing community leaves the bay for healthy fishing elsewhere? Where will they be in 30 years when San Francisco community members are seeking treatment for stomach and skin cancer from pollutants in bay waters? Where will they be in 40 years when the families residing in those homes are up to their belly buttons in the rising sea water?

Well, Cargill and DMB will be in the same proverbial place that British Petroleum is right now while Gulf Coast residents struggle to survive. Literally, they’ll be here in Scottsdale, Arizona where you can buy a nice 5 bedroom home for $6.7 million.

It’s not that Cargill Inc. or DMB Associates are bad people. Not even BP or Exxon for that matter. They’re just trying to make a buck like anybody else. And nobody wanted Deepwater Horizon or the Exxon Valdez oil spills. Nobody wants to trash San Francisco Bay. But they really don’t want to save San Francisco Bay either if it gets between them and that dollar.

Not long ago I rented a house with my family from a Realtor in Tucson, Arizona. Our landlord was, seemingly, a nice man. Just as our lease was up, this nice man told us he was going to redevelop his home, which involved redoing the roof, porches, as well as heating and cooling ducts. We asked if we needed to leave. Nah, we didn’t need to leave, but he would need us to pay him full rent. We asked if we should sign another lease. Nah, we didn’t need to sign another lease either.

Over the next 45 days his redevelopment left us with construction equipment and a port-o-let in our children’s play areas, with fiberglass insulation blowing through our home for our children to breathe, without air conditioning during 115-degree days, without power so that I couldn’t work 3 days out of every week and costing us a month’s worth of groceries from the refrigerator, and without a roof while the monsoons poured rain directly into our home for 36 hours. Our landlord, that nice man, was on vacation in Florida at the time. When we finally evacuated for our children’s safety, he took us for the next month’s rent that we’d already paid without reimbursing us for the lost groceries, lost work, or hotel expenses.

When confronted, his response was that these were unfortunate circumstances for which he was not liable.

Economists call these things externalities. Unfortunate circumstances that an organization’s industry or development may in fact cause, but for which they will not be held accountable… if it is at all possible for them to avoid it.

BP is apparently being held accountable by the U. S. government, and yet they still work very hard to avoid whatever liability they can by limiting public knowledge about the scope of their oil disaster (rawstory.com “Coast Guard Bans Reporters Oil Cleanup Sites”). Exxon Valdez enjoyed the benefit of U. S. legislation that limited their liability. Through environmental legislation the U. S. government makes developers somewhat liable for their developments by requiring them to mitigate that impact elsewhere. But it doesn’t benefit the site directly. There is no policy requiring developers to be held accountable for the long-term impact they make on society.

Externalities that impact environment, economics, health,  and quality of life.

I’m sure there are people who read my experience with that landlord and scream, “Idiot! You should’ve signed a lease! You should’ve withheld the month’s rent! You should’ve gotten outta there sooner! You should’ve taken him to court!”

Right. We should’ve had some forethought about what we were getting into. And we should have all collectively had some forethought about what were likely to be the results of “drill, baby, drill.” And we should have some forethought about what is likely to be the result of developing every open space there is to develop.

Scandals abound. We don’t need a University of East Anglia scientist to prove that unlimited industry and development is bad for our world. It doesn’t take a spy to discover that the person trying to make a buck off of us does not necessarily have our best interests in mind. At some point we have to have enough sense to recognize we’re in harm’s way and say, “Enough.”

So spies have videogames to teach them how to think. I wonder if there’s a videogame that can teach us civilians how to think ahead. That would be especially valuable.

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