07/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Gulf: Captured By Our Creations

We're all witnessing the horrifying disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of us are running the gauntlet of emotions from sadness to anger. There is a lot of handwringing as the Gulf Coast girds itself for yet another devastating blow. It is not clear if this will be worse than Katrina, but that possibility looms large. We can rebuild after a hurricane. The damage from an oil spill of this magnitude can lastfor decades -- or for all eternity.

No doubt British Petroleum will pay. The Valdez cost Exxon upwards of $5B I'm told.
Since these costs get passed on, the fact is that, at the end of the day, we all pay.

Following the Valdez, I was hired by one of Exxon's subsidiaries to craft an alcohol and drug policy. We worked with about a hundred individuals representing a cross-section of the company from the CEO to ship captains and union representatives to office workers. Over 8 weeks, we debated the "rules" and finally the entire organization aligned on a very serious 'no tolerance' policy.

What was illuminating to everyone involved was my claim that everyone in the company was "alcoholic" whether they drank or not. What I meant is that, from the perspective of the organization as a whole, whether one is drunk or simply tolerates a colleague being drunk amounts to the same thing. We collectively create a silent conspiracy to perpetuate the status quo, even when everyone knows it is dangerous or illegal.

The same sort of complicity was evident in the Enron collapse. It is blatantly evident in the Wall Street debacle and the financial crisis it perpetuated. And it is, no doubt, going to become a factor in what is happening in the Gulf. Specifically, somebody knew the risk or knew of a problem: either they didn't say anything, no one listened or some technocrat decided that the 'numbers' justified the risk.

This sort of "unthinking" technocracy, whether driven by engineers or Harvard MBAs, is rampant in most organizations in most industries. Decisions are made as a function of "cost/benefit" without consideration to any other consequences. This isn't a problem of bad people. It is a "paradigm problem" -- the consequence of a worldview that is blind to any proposition that challenges its own assumptions. In short, it is a worldview that operates in denial of any other perspective. This Oil Spill is just the latest example of "unintended" consequence that nonetheless will adversely affect the lives of millions for a generation.

In his book In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander argues that the underlying structure of interpretation that allows these kinds of disasters is a "pro-technology" mindset that believes that technologies are 'neutral' and that only people determine whether they are benign or malignant. He would say that many technologies are inherently problematic or dangerous, but that this is a moot point (since we never have an opportunity to debate and choose whether we're willing to accept the risks). By the time someone sees that nuclear waste is a hundred-thousand-year problem or that certain pollutants can kill an ecosystem or that high tech methods for extracting oil (whether in the Gulf or in the Canadian Oil Sands) may not be as cost-beneficial as the financial analysts would have us believe, it is too late. The cat is out of the bag.

Whether human beings can regain some choice over their technological and institutional "creations" is doubtful. We've created a world so complex and fragmented (specialized) that sane or enlightened governance seems impossible. Yet if we recognize the problem as a paradigm problem, it can be transformed when enough people decide to play a different game.

Leadership is about creating reality -- not merely coping with the world as we know it. Time is of the essence. Let us not remain captured by our creations.

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.