Empathy with The They

 

Just woke up, got mah coffee, readying to start the day. I was reminiscing about one of my first jobs. Basically, my first corporate job. I worked at Major Litigation for ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Oil). One of the many offshoots of the Standard Oil trust.

I was thinking about how as I grow older, I can appreciate what the powers that be are doing. Even when it has undesired side effects. This has come up a lot as people, businesses, and local govt flails with the effects of Covid-19. I make fun of the Colmarian Confederation a lot in my books, and it’s part parody and much truth. Because a galaxy-spanning government can’t possibly be efficient.

Back to my jobs at Arco. I was 19+ years old and part of my job was data entry and databases and data this and that for legal cases. And as a consequence, I read thousands and thousands of documents. Every lawsuit ever. And when a company buys another company, you inherit all their liabilities. So I was reading about Richfield and Sinclair oil and whatever company it was that treated the first telephone poles so they wouldn’t rot. That was the 1800s and they’d just dump that tar in the river, what could go wrong? I read an awesome set of documents where the Dept of Energy instructed the oil company, during WWII, to simply dig some big ass pits, dump the waste oil, and cover it with dirt. Then fast forward 40 years and nearby towns have significantly higher instances of mental retardation and lower overall IQ. I read about Anaconda mining, which they inherited. And their enormous smelters. And I saw pictures of Butte and the areas around those smelters, and there were zero trees or vegetation of any kind. I read a document where they instructed agents to contact sub-agents, to buy up all the diseased cattle downwind. And long after they shuttered and abandoned those sites, they were still there. And if it rained hard enough, all the fish would die in the rivers and streams. Because you had half a century of heavy metals and solvents sitting around. There was so much heavy metal in families’ backyards from the smelter wafting it, that it was actually profitable to mine it. Pan for copper in your backyard. Not so profitable for drinking water.

So many superfund sites. Sites so toxic they would be uninhabitable for centuries. The Hanford nuclear site that was so radioactive they had to hire Teamsters wearing protective gear to collect the tumbleweed. Because it would tumble offsite and carry radiation with it. The supertankers! Man. Got to haul that crude from Alaska. And you got 20 guys stuck in cramped corners for months. And the shipbuilders knew they were carrying unbelievably dangerous materials, so they stuck protective gear everywhere. And at the time, one of the best protective elements against fire was asbestos. So those poor sailors developed super cancers and many, many other terrible ailments. And when their lawyers would request files, anything, the corporate lawyers would object to the term “files.” Would object to dates. Would object to the word “the.” Would object and object until the claimants were broke and/or dead. There was a pipeline leak. Not uncommon. How often do trees and earthquakes and construction workers damage water/electrical/whatever pipes? The leak went over a road. A roachcoach, back before they were upscale food trucks, drove over the road with all those burners going as they prepped for a work site. Boom.

BUT. When I first read all this stuff, I was appalled at the behavior of these mega-corporations over the centuries. Shady. Arrogant. Greedy. Corrupt? After a while, however, I understood more and more the reasons for their actions. I could empathize. It didn’t take long. I was at a rave(!). Hanging out on a balcony looking at the Los Angeles skyline. I was talking with some kid, maybe a few years younger than me. He was still in college. Bright. Enthusiastic. Probably high. But also hadn’t experienced the real world. I mentioned that Arco was funding some charity organization that the kid had mentioned. He was incensed. He shot back at me, “they’re only doing that for a tax break!” I looked at him like he was a moron, “no shit,” I said, chuckling. As if a giant, public corporation was supposed to be selfless Gandhi.

I read a lot of technical works. Chemicals you can’t possibly dream up names for on your own. There was one document I read by a bright scientist. I had seen his career go from lab dude to the top chemist at Arco. An executive. They were writing the technical manual on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1,1,1-Trichloroethane That’s a chemical I can rattle off without trying because for some reason it stuck in my head. 1-1-1-Trichloroethane. And if you read that wiki, they still have the handiwork of that top chemist in it, maybe 40 years later. The original description, by the guys who were closest to making/implementing/testing it, warned that inhalation could cause euphoria, slurring of words, etc. Just like damn near any inhalation that gets you high, from butane to methane to gasoline. They’re all doing roughly the same thing. But the Big Chief Chemist was like, take out euphoria and replace it with confusion. He scrubbed anything that would make it sound like you could get high, even slightly, and put in words to make it sound like you’d suffer some crippling, nervous breakdown, followed shortly thereafter by death. And I got pissed about that, not because I felt people should be huffing 1-1-1-Trichloroethane, but because it wasn’t true. It wasn’t the actual science. BUT…I know why they did it. I understand it. And if I was in his place today, I damn well might do the same thing and piss off some 19 y/o kid who read about it later. Because the people around those chemicals were dudes stuck out in the hinterlands of Alaska. Guys on floating oil derricks. Young, blue-collar men, no women within 500 miles, and 12 hour days of physical labor, for weeks or months or even years without break. And if things go south on an oil platform, or drilling a mile down through bedrock, or out in the Pacific on a supertanker, things can go really, spectacularly bad. I read documents and documents about it. That roach coach that exploded, they couldn’t find it. None of it.

There’s all sorts of unintended consequences and side effects when you’re making policy. Corporate policy. Government policy. Delovoa Fan Club policy. And it’s easy to see the bad. It’s a lot harder to get in their shoes and see what they are attempting. At Arco I met an early mentor. I didn’t know him well or know him very long. But I saw a lot of good qualities that could exist even in the upper echelons of business. He was a Senior Attorney. Which was like saying he was God. Because Arco corporate was run by Legal. Just having him talk to me made my supervisors think I was untouchable. Really. And I fucking played it up. But as nice as that attorney was, he was an attorney for a major oil company. And if he was presented with some dying father that our company poisoned, he would do his best to make sure that man got nothing. Because that was his job. And you can look at that and say it’s terrible and wrong. But you can also look at the attorney/company side and see that they stay in business by staying in business.

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