Thursday, July 21, 2011

Coal Terminal: A Pit & Pendulum Exercise?

I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened. - Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)
It's always interesting to see politicians react to proposals. Often they say things that they come to regret, aren't very accurate, are based upon whatever particular biases they may have, or seem popular at the time.
Some are cynical enough to know that citizens aren't paying that much attention, or can be readily influenced by an early dose of propaganda that sounds good.
Of course, the memories of voters is pretty poor at times, which means politicians can often get away with ridiculous statements without much worry about later voting contests.

A disturbing number of today's politicians are also insidiously biased, but avoid divulging their bias by dodging questions or using clever language that avoids answering questions that might clarify their real stand on issues.
That behavior is deceptive and dishonest, but likely as not, not illegal.
Too bad, for a country that was built upon truth and idealism that works for everyone, born or not yet born.
Why not require members of Congress to take the same oath that witnesses in civil & criminal trials must take?
But, I digress....

This opening paragraph could apply to any number of issues, both local and national, but this particular blog focuses upon the so-called coal train terminal proposal for Cherry Point, Whatcom County, Washington.

We are fortunate to have among our community, journalists with both skill & integrity, to help us sort through the myriad ideas, impacts, costs & benefits that will come to play in determining the eventual outcome of the major proposal that is now on the table and awaiting resolution.
In particular, the journalists I am referring to are seasoned, respected professionals and veterans of their trade;

Floyd McKay, a WWU Journalism professor & a regular contributor to Crosscut, a regional blog publication focused on issues of regional significance.

Bob Simmons, a seasoned journalist with a long career in both Seattle & Bellingham, also a regular contributor to Crosscut, a regional blog publication focused on issues of regional significance.

John Stark, senior reporter of the Bellingham Herald.

All of these individuals are to be commended for their dedication to informing the general public on an issue that is very complicated and with potential seriously impacts to our community and region.

Of course, there are others to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for positively contributing to and informing this dialogue, as well, including RE Sources, CommunityWise, The Cascadia Weekly, the City of Bellingham and others.
To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day. - Sir Winston Churchill
Claims of bias seem rampant, particularly from among those whose ox seems to have been gored. But, hey, that's the way things are supposed to work in America!
Time will tell the outcome of this episode, but isn't it fun to be an actual part of the discussion?
Maybe 'fun' isn't the exact right word, but what's a better one?

Anyway, here's a few thoughts on how this particular issue is now being touted, debated and discussed:

As early as January 07, 2011, Floyd Mckay alerted us to this issue, with a log entitled 'How great corporate power shadows Gregoire on coal shipments to China' on Crosscut.
Check it out for its historical context and prescience.

One telling phrase was 'There will be debate as to whether a coal port is an opportunity or a long-range sacrifice to short-term jobs.'

Another is; 'It is difficult to see a scenario in which Amtrak could substantially increase its passenger trains north of Seattle at the same time that BNSF a dozen coal trains of a mile or more in length-all on a single track.'

And, a third; 'The nation's railroad infrastructure, one of the worst in the industrial world, has been neglected for decades and now plays a big role in how we create an industrial and energy policy in a time of shifting global economics, climate change and environmental degradation. Our neglect of basic investment in transportation may save us from hasty decisions with repercussions far down the road.'

On March 04, 2011, Bob Simmons posted this article on Crosscut, entitled 'Bellingham: Back to coal with planned shipping terminal?'
This piece is also notable for its perspective, typified by this statement; “This is like a tale of two Bellinghams reaching for a sustainable, clean future, the other clawing its way to the past.”

Back on February 2, 2001, John Stark published this article in the Bellingham Herald.
It's interesting to see what has happened since then, and particularly how the Mayor's position has strengthened and shifted in response to hearing citizens' views.
Earlier reports may also have been made, but these certainly did not do much to raise public awareness, since key politicos and likely supporters were mainly targeted.

The techniques used for promoting, reporting and questioning the coal terminal proposal are interesting to observe by themselves:
Politics is like football; if you see daylight, go through the hole. - John F. Kennedy
Promotion has been largely revealed on a Progressive Disclosure model, first popularized in the 1980's using a presentation technique designed to guide the audience through stages of information. Except, in this case, the audience itself was also controlled, thinking an initial groundswell of commitment might steamroll the idea into reality, bypassing some problematic 'hoops' the promoters would rather not jump through. This scheme seems to have failed, as it should have.

Reporting by the seasoned journalists has been nicely done following the inverted pyramid technique, used frequently in the media. This starts with the six basic questions; who?, what?, when?, where?, why?, how?
Questioning has always been the wild card, as is usually the case with the public. Each citizen is motivated by unique factors, ranging from single logical concerns, to multiple fears, rumor, hearsay, personal bias, influence from others, or just a desire to be heard and participate in the melee.
“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” -Benjamin Franklin
But, whatever the method employed, the important thing is that all the important information is drawn out into public scrutiny. Only then can a fair analyses be made and reasonable practical decisions made. The process does depend on facts, but not only facts but feelings, interpretations, judgements and politics. It is inherently messy! But, hey, isn't that what our democracy is about?
It is entirely possible that this coal issue will be resolved to most people's expectations and satisfaction, but don't count on it!
Things could get scary and turn out in a way different than we think. The Pit & the Pendulum comes to mind.

A brief description & synopsis for those interested, courtesy of Wikipedia:
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842 in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story describes his experience of being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe's stories which are aided by the supernatural. The traditional elements established in popular horror tales at the time are followed, but critical reception has been mixed. The tale has been adapted to film several times.

The story takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. At the beginning of the story an unnamed narrator is brought to trial before various sinister judges. Poe provides no explanation of why he is there or for what he has been arrested. Before him are seven tall white candles on a table, and, as they melt, his hopes of survival also diminish. He is condemned to death and finds himself in a pitch black compartment. At first the prisoner thinks that he is locked in a tomb, but he discovers that he is in a cell. He decides to explore the cell by placing a hem from his robe against a wall so he can count the paces around the room; however, he faints before being able to measure the whole perimeter.
When the prisoner awakens he discovers food and water nearby. He gets back up and tries to measure the prison again, finding that the perimeter measures one hundred steps. While crossing the room he slips on the hem of his robe. He discovers that if he had not tripped he would have walked into a deep pit with water at the bottom in the center of the cell.
After losing consciousness again the narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is bound to a wooden board by ropes. He looks up in horror to see a painted picture of Father Time on the ceiling; hanging from the figure is a gigantic scythe-like pendulum swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. However the condemned man is able to attract rats to his bonds with meat left for him to eat and they start chewing through the ropes. As the pendulum reaches a point inches above his heart, the prisoner breaks free of the ropes and watches as the pendulum is drawn back to the ceiling.
He then sees that the walls have become red-hot and begun moving inwards, driving him into the center of the room and towards the brink of the pit. As he gazes into the pit, he decides that no fate could be worse than falling into it. It is implied by the text that the narrator fears what he sees at the bottom of the pit, or perhaps is frightened by its depth. The exact cause of his fear is not clearly stated. However, as the narrator moves back from the pit, he sees that the red-hot walls are leaving him with no foothold. As the prisoner begins to fall into the pit, he hears human voices. The walls rush back and an arm catches him. The French Army has taken Toledo and the Inquisition is in the hands of its enemies.


Let's hope we don't have such a nightmare before the coal terminal issue is resolved.
Maybe this experiment will be more palatable?
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." -- Aristotle