Freitag, Februar 13, 2009

Risks, Unintended Consequences and Death...

One of the things I do is thinking about risk management. There are multiple types of risks, both good and bad risks, and avoidable and unavoidable risks. There are the risks you know about and the risks that you don't have an inkling that they even exist. There are risks deliberately taken and risks that are thrust upon you by accident; there are risks that can be planned for and risks that cannot be anticipated; there are risks imposed on you by those who would destroy you, and risks imposed by those who want to do you good. There are necessary and required risks, and there are unnecessary risks; there are also responsible risks and irresponsible risks, based on those who impose them.

So, we also have risks brought about by unintended consequences. What are unintended consequences? Well, duh: these are consequences that weren't expected, planned for or anticipated. There are two ways of viewing these kinds of risks: one is to recognize them when they appear and deal with them, the other is to deny that they were the result of the actions taken and deny any causality until the point where it cannot be denied.

While all actions we take have unintended consequences - due to the complexity of the world we live in, fundamentally chaotic - there is a set of criteria that we have to think about when assessing unintended consequences: death.

Now, we all die. It's the empiric end of our existence, regardless of what your faith (or lack of it) may tell you. Death is, for the legal system and for society in general, the final stop, the end. Further, it can't be compensated for, except to others. Killing someone is, in all societies, considered to be the ultimate crime, the ultimate transgression, as it robs that person of his future. Societies make exceptions - death sentences for heinous crimes, war, police, and for some societies a way to fill the larder and dominate your enemies - but generally speaking, death is not something considered to be acceptable as the result of someone's actions, intended or not.

Actions taken that result in unintended consequences that lead to death are, if the result is reflexive, at best subjects for the Darwin Awards, and, if the effects impact others, cause for criminal prosecution. Do something that unintentionally causes death should lead to prosecution, not for murder pre-meditated per se, but for manslaughter or similar offenses.

You can further break this analysis down into greater detail, working out penalties and the like for different degrees of culpability and direct link to the actions. The farther away you get from the original action, the more difficult it is to prove a causal relationship and the more difficult it is to determine culpability.

This is basic legal thinking and nothing special.

Now, we have a case of unintended consequences that has killed at least 180 people and probably more than that. We're talking about a policy, as enacted by people intending good, that has lead to wide-scale destruction, leaving thousands devastated and billions in damage, as well as the dead.

Those who enacted this policy should have known better. Their policies were shown to be empirically foolish in the wake of experiences of just a few years ago where another country also applied these policies which led to the same result: death and wide-scale destruction. They had unintentional consequences that deliberately accepted risks that have now lead to deaths. As the vernacular puts it, the book should be thrown at them.

This is what I am talking about.

The Australian fires that have killed so many were avoidable and preventable, if the local elected officials had learned from the American experience in the West of the last several decades. Uncleared forests burn: it's nature's way of developing the ecosystem. You can't prevent them from happening, and if you keep on putting them out as early as possible, you create the environment for large-scale burning that becomes uncontrollable. There may have been arson involved, but this hasn't been settled yet. But this was a disaster waiting to happen.

Having pristine, untouched nature is a lovely thing. No doubt about it. The question then becomes: at what cost?

Deciding that the same rules that should apply for large-scale, remote forests should also apply to residential neighborhoods: catastrophe.

This is a risk - of naturally occurring fires finding enormous amounts of brush to burn - that was unintended by the decision makers involved, but was a direct and logical consequence of their local ordinances which prevented trimming of trees and brush from houses, under penalty of law.

The risk to the environment of trimming brush and controlled burns is minimal: what the environmentalists have done, in the name of "protecting nature", is to kill people though imposing deadly risks in the name of something that does not warrant accepting deadly risks. Their actions moved the average burnable level per hectare to between 35 and 50 tons: 8 tons is considered to be a fire hazard. No wonder the firefighters couldn't put out the fires: the heat levels generated by fires increases geometrically, not linear, resulting in the conditions that led to the firestorms seen in Australia.

Unintended consequences? Only to the ignorant. Ignorance of the law is no argument, and ignorance here has been deadly. But in this case it wasn't the ignorance of those killed which got them killed, but rather the ignorance of the councils that passed the ecological nonsense that raised an untouched environment to a good that is greater than a human life. That is unacceptable.

What makes this criminal is the fact that these councils ordered fire trails and fire breaks abandoned and returned to nature. What makes this criminal is that the effects of such decisions were known to be deadly: the US realized this after a decade of massive wilderness fires that destroyed literally millions of trees and devastated entire communities.

To quote from the link ut supra:

The Kinglake area was a nature-loving community of tree-changers, organic farmers and artists to the north of Melbourne. A council committed to reducing carbon emissions dominates the Nillumbik shire, a so-called "green wedge" area, where restrictions on removing vegetation around houses reportedly added to the dangers. In nearby St Andrews, where more than 20 people are believed to have died, surviving residents have spoken angrily of "greenies" who prevented them from cutting back trees near their property, including in one case, a tea tree that went "whoomp". ... Kinglake and Maryville, now crime scenes, are built among tall forests of messmate stringy bark trees which pose a special fire hazard, with peeling bark creating firebrands that carry fire five kilometres out. ...

Things are no better in NSW, although we don't quite have Victoria's perfect storm of winds and forest types. Near Dubbo two years ago, as a bushfire raged through the Goonoo Community Conservation Area, volunteer firefighters bulldozing a control line were obstructed by National Parks and Wildlife Service employees who had driven from Sydney to stop vegetation being damaged.

Now that is mind-boggling: stopping the bulldozers from clearing fire breaks because vegetation was being damaged by doing so.

Guess they'd rather have all the vegetation destroyed by burning instead of having some being bulldozed to prevent more devastation.

Can we even talk of unintended consequences here? Risks imposed on innocents by people whose dedication to things green trumped common-sense and scientific knowledge that would have prevented so many deaths.

Keine Kommentare: