Tag Archives: arrogance

People In the Way

It’s good to see that Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary in the Seattle Times has gone “viral” — whatever that is supposed to mean anymore. I suppose if something in the culture — a meme, a song, a fad or a bit of slang — manages to reach me, it must have pretty wide circulation: I don’t keep up.

Lotter wrote it herself, as she was slowly dying, noting that “one of the few advantages of having Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.” She faced death with humor, courage and grace.

I was especially struck by what Lotter had to say to her children, Tessa and Riley. “May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.” I’ve certainly come across the thought before; I suppose we all have. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and don’t come to obituaries looking for poetic or philosophical originality. Besides, it’s more interesting to reflect on the reasons why the thought has stayed with me over the past few days.

First, because I have been trying to get a big new project together, and I always struggle when starting a new project to take the little steps that will get me to the big place I see in the distance. When I am struck by an idea, excited by a project, or even when the first words of a piece of writing come to me, I can easily forget that eureka is just the start of the journey. I am impatient and I want to rush ahead; I look for shortcuts, end up taking detours and don’t take in the sights because I am so focused on where I think I am heading. And since I never end up exactly where I first intend to go, I would learn a lot more if I would allow myself to experience the trip.

It gets worse than that. Every difficulty I encounter seems like some kind of grand injustice the universe, or some evil deceiver, has visited upon me. Every time I stumble or fail to make progress — which is more often than I care to admit — I risk falling into the trap of blaming myself, thinking I have betrayed myself, or just feeling sorry for myself because I am up against insurmountable odds. When others don’t see things my way or express doubts, or don’t sufficiently rally to the idea in which I have fully invested my ego and imagination, or simply say they don’t get it, whatever it may be, they can become my persecutors and enemies, even though their intentions may have been friendly.

I am exaggerating (a little) to make a point: the emotion that takes over at such moments is powerful and undeniable. At root, I suspect, these feelings stem from a sense of vulnerability: new ideas, new plans, new projects — all make you newly vulnerable, because they are disorienting and will more likely than not fail.

The pursuit of an idea, a plan or a path entails great moral risk, especially when we come up against others. Just consider how often you hear, or how often you think, that people are in the way. It’s hard not to feel this way, at some point, if you live in New York City. I’m heading down the stairs to the subway platform, and someone in front of me is moving slowly, lumbering, limping, tired, breathing heavily, grunting, dragging a granny cart or leading a toddler down the stairs, cute little step by adorable little step by sweet little step. I can hear the train coming into the station. Not the train: my train. Get out of my way! On the sidewalk, badly dressed, slow-witted tourists, sweating and bloated with their deep-fried lunch, walk four and five across, gawking and without any sense of direction. Single file! Don’t know how to merge at the Holland Tunnel? Honk! People line up six, twelve, twenty-four deep at checkouts, taxi stands, restaurants — nearly everywhere you go. End of the line.

So in our rush, in our huff, when we are inspired, wired and just plain tired, we reduce people to inanimate objects or obstacles in our way. That puts us in the same moral ballpark as seeing people as means to our ends, instruments of our will — the outrage is that they are not mere extensions of our will — but it’s a little more sociopathic and depraved. People in the way need to be shoved aside, eliminated or made to disappear. They are not human beings but mere blocks; they might as well be sawhorses, sandbags or Jersey barriers — and it’s all the more irritating that they are not cast from concrete and set down by government order; they are alive, with all the appearances and behaviors of intelligent humanity, and yet they are very much in the way.

Sometimes we say that people are in the way when they are not even there, in front of us; they are in the way because they are obstinate, or don’t see things our way, or because they are creating difficulties of one kind or another. This is the more interesting case, and it involves risk of a different magnitude. For starters, it’s a strange abuse of language to talk about these people being “in the way” when there is no way apparent — no road, no staircase, no sidewalk or path. We speak as if there is a single orientation in the world — as if there were a way, the way, my way, as if the right way for all people were established by one person’s willing it. My way or the highway. Why doesn’t she get with the program? “The way” even has a whiff of providence about it, as if it reflected some higher order, and echoes of messianic religious vocabulary.

It also suggests we know where we are going — which of course we do not. And this is perhaps the greatest risk we run: to think that we know the path before we have traveled it, and that we have secured our ends simply because we have set out toward them. Stephen Covey advised highly effective people to start with the outcome they want to achieve, but the more important lesson is that you are most likely to achieve something other than what you set out to do. That’s a basic truth about human action, and a pretty good reason to set your sights on something other than being highly effective. This is especially so if you think of yourself as a leader. The leader who cannot or will not admit his vulnerability and uncertainty about the best way forward will probably just end up getting in everybody’s way.

What’s Mozambique to Michigan?

Tom Albanese has stepped down from his position as CEO of Rio Tinto, after the mining giant announced a $14 billion dollar writedown. While most of those losses were connected with Alcan, the aluminum business, the company also lost $3 billion on a coal project in Mozambique. That’s by far the more interesting aspect of the story, and it’s one that deserves attention not just from investors, industry analysts and Africa watchers, but also from those (like me) with an eye on the company’s operations around Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Here’s how it all went down in Mozambique. A couple of years ago, Rio Tinto acquired Australian-based Riversdale Mining for $4 billion. Riversdale had a number of coal projects going in Mozambique near Tete, “the coal capital of the world.” Logistics – moving coal in significant quantities from the mines in the Moatize Basin – was a challenge. Some coal mined at Benga could move by rail, pending “final approval by government authorities.” Still, that was only a partial solution; “long term logistics,” as a Rio Tinto presentation [pdf] put it, would be required once the Zambeze and Tete East projects were in full swing.

The company proposed moving Zambeze coal by barge on the Zambezi River. Barges would travel from Tete to the port of Chinde, on the Indian Ocean. The promised solution would not only make the coal business boom in Mozambique; it would also allow for “future growth” and “provide a catalyst for further socio-economic development in [the] region.” The company sought approval for its Zambeze River project by autumn of 2011 and planned to start coal barging by 2014.

All very well, except the Mozambique authorities never approved the transport of coal on the Zambezi.

How could the Mozambique authorities refuse Rio Tinto? After all, the company’s own Environmental Impact Report showed that coal-barging on the Zambezi would have no “significant” environmental effects.

Mozambique Transport Minister Paulo Zucula saw things differently: “the impact was seen to be very negative, and there were no plans for mitigation. As proposed it is not doable,” he said. Barging would adversely affect the river’s fish and dredging would increase the likelihood of floods: “every four years we have problems with flooding and killing people. So if you’re going to dredge the river, expand the banks, we will be in trouble.”

Zucula suggested Rio Tinto move its coal by rail. He has championed the construction of a new railway line from Moatize to the port of Nacala, and helped secure a $500 million investment in the $1.5 billion project from the Dutch government and the European Union. So Zucula may not have been solely concerned with the fate of the Zambezi’s fish or the people living along its banks. But the purity of Zucula’s motives is really not at issue. The issue is that Rio Tinto seriously miscalculated and overplayed its hand in Mozambique.

A blogger in the Financial Times today sees here “a useful lesson for other mega-project investors in emerging markets.” He doesn’t say what that useful lesson is. I’m certain it’s something more than the need for prudence, and that it extends beyond emerging markets. It has to do with overconfidence – hubris, even: “Rio knew what the challenge was. It just couldn’t find an effective answer.” And yet, it forged ahead, certain that it would prevail upon the authorities in Mozambique to see things its way. That was just plain arrogant.

Sam Walsh, the new CEO of Rio Tinto, should take this $3 billion lesson in humility to heart. At the very least, he and the board of directors might ask whether the company’s failures in Mozambique are the outcome of behaviors that are in evidence elsewhere.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the company is developing the Eagle Mine, it faces a set of challenges of the same kind if not of the same magnitude as those it faced in Mozambique. The mine is being built on a site sacred to Native Americans and will be situated in the heart of the Yellow Dog Watershed, which feeds into Lake Superior. The company has run roughshod over Native American claims and issued familiar and predictable assurances that it will be a responsible steward of the environment – whatever that means when you’re extracting sulfide ore in the middle of a fragile watershed ecosystem. As for logistics, Rio Tinto was banking on the approval and construction of County Road 595, despite local opposition and concern from environmental regulators, just as it banked on the approval of the barge plan in Mozambique.

What could possibly go wrong? Rio Tinto had big Michigan politicians on its side: Debbie Stabinow, Dan Benishek, Rick Snyder, Matt Huuki. Even the Romney campaign was for County Road 595. But the EPA along with local environmental groups objected. After much wrangling, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the wetlands fill permit for the new road just a couple of weeks ago, on January 3rd: the road did not meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Rio Tinto has now had to shift financial support from this $82 million project to improving and upgrading existing roads. It’s as if the company’s blunder in Mozambique found a faint but telling echo in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.