On June 29, 2009, a peculiar story about a dead brown cow washed up on a Victoria city beach made headlines across Canada. The reason wasn’t the carcass; it was that the city officials found themselves unable to do a thing about it. Protected by a confusing and conflicting barbed wire mess of jurisdiction and responsibility, the cow decomposed quietly though perhaps odorously, as embarassed bureaucrats tried to figure out what to do. The cow had not given any thought to the rules governing such events; for one thing, it had beached itself below the waterline, so that technically, this was a carcass on federal lands. There were other reasons why after much deliberation, it was decided to ship the cow to Calgary, there to be dismembered ‘properly’. And one surmises, at great expense.
Now in my view this isn’t just a story about Victoria city officials doing what city officials often do, which is get caught up in a thicket of conflicting laws and fall flat on their faces. I see it as a symbol of an endemic inability to solve many of our serious problems.
Let’s take Climate Change. In spite of all the bickering, the meetings, the inconvenient truth is that we have not risen to this global threat. We’re wasting time in squabbling and only some countries, Germany et al, are doing things to mitigate the ever increasing speed at which climate change is turning our once somewhat predictable world into something extremely inconvenient. The West, which led in dumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere, is not leading in cleaning them up. Obama is making soothing noises and has said that he will implement a cap and trade system. Too little, too late. And we keep building more cars and freeways instead of investing in public transit. We’re dithering, and arguing about whose responsibility it is to clean up the planet. Sounds familiar, so let’s not blame the Victoria bureaucrats; they are in good company.
How about chemical pollution, a close cousin to climate change since it flows from the same source; oil and its by-products, plastics. It took a bunch of angry mothers with babies in strollers to focus attention on the lethal chemicals called Phthalates that leak into baby milk from bottles made with plastic. Companies did act more swiftly than usual and that type of plastic is now banned. Chalk one up for angry moms. But what about all the other toxins that are hiding out in practically every household item, from flame retardants to pesticides? Why is it that our politicians who are elected to defend the public interest against unscrupulous companies, only do so under duress?
And then there is all that Political Correctness stuff. If one person decides to call something a ‘hate crime’ because they don’t like an opinion posted on a professional listserv, the governing body will likely pay serious attention and maybe pull the offending listserv and replace it with something else, like a forum, even though the vast majority of members weren’t consulted. This happened recently in an organization I belong to, and it caused a firestorm of protest, but only from a small bunch of rebels. There are now two listservs and a forum, all because a couple of people actually threatened to go to the police. No wonder everyone is so gunshy when it comes to taking responsibility.
As one commentator whose name I can’t recall once wrote; we are a society that doesn’t so much solve as manage its problems. We have a lot of well intentioned ‘managers’ and all too few leaders. Leading means taking responsibility, deciding what is the right course of action, and implementing it. When it comes to the cow; why couldn’t they have hired a butcher, cut up the carcass and hauled if off the beach in pieces? We will never know and by now the cow is history.
But I fear the dead cow syndrome will be with us for much longer.