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Murder by Spreadsheet

If a corporation doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. Right?

Me and General Electric, we have history. Like an 80s slasher movie kind of history.

You see I grew up just outside GE’s headquarters in Pittsfield, MA, and like Sarah Palin could see Russia from her front porch, I could see the twinkling red lights of the GE smokestacks at night from my front lawn.

On the upside, the small city was bustling, and with about a quarter of the population working there it didn’t seem all that bad if you ignored the nearby brownfields (grass that strangely was never green) or the fact that Silver Lake never seemed to freeze in winter (it was right across the street from the plant).

All those employees helped create a thriving downtown. We shopped at England Brothers—a local department store that had an elevator with an actual operator in a uniform—October Mountain Books, the five-and-dime J.J. Newberry. Finding a parking space was near impossible.

But then labor wanted to get this thing called ‘adequate salaries’, and gradually GE started shifting those jobs to places where labor wasn’t so damn picky, and after the factories were completely shuttered we—and the EPA—discovered that it’d been dumping highly toxic PCBs, used in its transformer plant, into the Housatonic river.

Better yet! It gave away PCB-contaminated dirt to a local elementary school for their playground.

A couple of decades of legal battles later, they’re ponying up $600M for cleanup efforts, but not surprisingly cancer seems to be like…high. Do I blame GE for the pancreatic cancer that killed my mother at age 67?

Why yes, yes I do.

The whole situation created quite a bit of anguish that formed the backdrop of my first novel POE (no relation to the author—psych!), and while the experience of writing a 300-page horror novel did prove somewhat cathartic, I’d prefer to still have my parents (my father died two months before my mother from a heart attack that I consider collateral damage).

I wound up moving thousands of miles away, thinking that, like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, the monster was good and truly dead.

No such luck.

Fast forward a decade (or more) and I’m now living on Maui. Paradise, palm trees, etc. and sure, the sugarcane fields are periodically burned causing “black snow” and Monsanto has a sketch operation, but compared to Pittsfield it’s practically Eden.

But one day news breaks of a massive nuclear disaster in Fukushima—far away, but what with winds and currents, concern that we may get some of that radiation grows to a panic, and suddenly there’s no iodide or seaweed to be had anywhere.

News plays it all down, but as someone who knows these things can take decades to surface, I’m just going to say “we’ll see.”

Now the question eventually came up as to how the disaster happened in the first place—beyond the earthquake and tsunami—because earthquakes and tsunamis are pretty well documented throughout Japanese history. Did some safety feature fail?

No. An engineer who was part of the reactor’s design foresaw that something exactly along these lines could happen, and when the company that employed him didn’t listen, he quit.

Who did he work for? GE.

Impacted Japanese citizens, as well as U.S. Navy sailors who were part of the humanitarian response effort, tried to sue GE but their cases were dismissed because our legal system said that they should bring those suits to the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

And so it goes.

I wish I could say I’m angry, but the fact is I’m fatalistic. In order to be angry, you have to have hope, and I’m somewhat short on hope.

Because it’s not evil we’re up against, it’s banality. There was no psychopath at GE who set out to cause mayhem, kill innocent people, and decimate the environment in the mad pursuit of profit.

Well, there was one.

But mostly there were just people doing their jobs. People who made spreadsheets with numbers and columns and line items, people who probably, at the end of the day, justified their actions in increments. Ignoring this engineer, or that report, to make the math work better for the company was a small price to pay, because hey, what did they know? What if the experts were wrong? Isn’t science somewhat subjective?

I picture them driving home in their cars, past the smokestacks and brown grass, past the lake that was so toxic it was surrounded by chain link fencing, thinking about the irritating thing their spouse said to them that morning, what they were going to eat for dinner, whether their own, green lawn, needed mowing.

I think about how they compartmentalized the seeds that would eventually yield horrors.

And I think about how we all do too.

Recommended Reading:

If you want to read more about GE and don’t mind elevating your blood pressure, I’d recommend the following. It’ll take you to Amazon and I do get a small affiliate commission, but I would also encourage you to support your local library.

‘Cause librarians rock.




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