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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Barry Bickmore: Willful Blindness

by Barry Bickmore, Climate Asylum, August 24, 2013
I just watched a TED video of Margaret Heffernan talking about “The Dangers of Willful Blindness.”  (She’s also written a book called Willful Blindness, apparently.  See her official website.)  Heffernan talks about why some people turn a blind eye to glaring problems, while others choose to become “whistleblowers.”
Her introductory example was the case of Libby, Montana, where one woman, Gayla Benefield, started asking questions when both her parents died young, and she noticed an abnormal number of older men on oxygen tanks in the town.  She wondered whether the problem could have anything to do with the vermiculite mine that was the main economic engine of the town, and came to find out that the vermiculite mined there actually contains some asbestos.  [Note:  Heffernan says that vermiculite is a highly toxic form of asbestos, but that's not true.  Vermiculite is pretty harmless--it's just that this particular deposit also contained the minerals tremolite and actinolite, which are asbestos minerals.  Sorry, I'm a mineralogy teacher.]  At first, Benefield mostly just annoyed her neighbors, who didn’t want to look at the issue seriously, but that ticked her off and she kept at it.  Some of the neighbors even printed bumper stickers that said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana.  No, I don’t have asbestosis.”  When the government finally stepped in and started screening the residents of the town, they found out that there was an asbestosis problem, and as a result the mortality rate in the town was 80 TIMES HIGHER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE COUNTRY.  Not 80% higher.  80 TIMES higher.  Not 80 times higher than average.  80 times higher than ANYWHERE ELSE in the country.
Now, I don’t have to tell my readers how I think this story relates to being a Republican Earth scientist who takes climate change seriously.  But watch the video and pay attention to how Heffernan describes the excuses people make for remaining willfully blind.  See if you don’t find eerie similarities with the excuses you hear coming from the “Do-Nothing-About-Climate” crowd.
Climate change wasn’t the first issue about which I had encountered willful blindness, though.  Back in 2000-2001, I worked on a project having to do with leaked nuclear waste at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington.  This is where most of the plutonium for US nuclear weapons was produced since the 1940s, and production stopped in the late 1980s after a safety inspector blew the whistle on some of the UNBELIEVABLY unsafe things that were being done.  Since it was part of the weapons complex, all this stuff never came out before then because it was all hush-hush, national defense kind of stuff.  Maybe a couple million gallons of high-level nuclear waste have been released into the subsurface, a few miles by groundwater flow away from the Columbia River.  When I started the project, I decided to read up on the history of the site, and let me tell you, it cured quite a bit of my aversion to environmental regulation.  If you want to read a good historical account, see Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal, by Michael D’Antonio.
This isn’t a uniquely Republican, or American problem.  It’s just the way people are.  But while I can use this fact of life to make myself feel a little more kindly toward people who brush off serious concerns about things like climate change, it also makes me want to give them a good shake and a couple backhanded slaps.  If facing the truth is going to make people fly into a panic, well maybe they just need to buck up.

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