Flint and Us

February 9, 2016
Grant Oliphant

This post was authored by Grant Oliphant, President of the Heinz Endowments. It originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 2/7/2016.

Remember the iconic scene in “Casablanca” when Claude Rains’ character declares, “I’m shocked, shocked to discover gambling is going on here!” just as the croupier hands him his winnings?

That scene has been on my mind recently as we’ve heard “shocked” officials in Michigan try to explain the lead-poisoning catastrophe in Flint, while officials elsewhere rush to soothe rattled constituents with promises that “it couldn’t happen here.”

Somehow it all rings hollow and is not terribly reassuring.

Here are some questions: Was Flint symptomatic of dysfunctional government? Or of indifference to the poor? Or of systemic racism? Or of disregard for environmental warnings? Or of official disdain for scientific data?

This is the point on the multiple-choice quiz where you check the “all of the above” option.

Flint seems like a convergence of mistakes so colossal that surely it must be rare, and certainly it stands out for the scale and immediacy of its impact — a city poisoned by its water supply. But if we are to learn a larger lesson from what happened there, then we need to hold up a mirror and face the uncomfortable truth that the dynamics that made it possible are hardly confined to just one community.

When it comes to protecting public health, our society relies on public officials and agencies to do their jobs reasonably free of political and economic interference. This is no arena for dogma and competing incentives. We want our officials and regulators to focus on the core function of government, which is to protect our common well-being. When these systems are compromised, there can be terrible consequences, and those consequences tend to disproportionately harm people who are poor and, very often, African-American or other minorities.

But to varying degrees this happens all the time in our country. Environmental health concerns find themselves pitted against economic and other priorities, science gets ignored or wished away, inequity and disparities deepen, the world shrugs, we hit “repeat” and move on.

Are our community, region and state immune? Hardly. We have made great progress in recent years in cleaning up our environment, but just think for a moment about the ongoing problems in our region with air quality and with fracking, and our deep reluctance to fully examine and debate their health effects — let alone act on the data.

Photo Credit:  Sarah Razak

As for lead, which the Flint tragedy has suddenly made top-of-mind, there is still plenty of reason to worry about the risk of lead exposure to children in our community.

We should be having these conversations honestly and acting on them earnestly, not happy-talking our way around them. After decades of fighting to turn our region around, I get why we would be terrified to acknowledge old, persistent problems now that Pittsburgh enjoys a greatly improved image and growing momentum. But we would do well to remember Carl Jung’s warning that “what we refuse to bring into consciousness comes back to us as fate” and “you meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.”

Ducking our problems will not make us better; they will make us Flint.

Flint happened, and similar catastrophes will undoubtedly happen again, because our society keeps accepting two lies: that some people are disposable and that public health must inevitably be sacrificed on the altar of prosperity.

If the disaster in Michigan did nothing else, it illustrated the folly of these beliefs. It proved beyond doubt that, in today’s world, a community’s destiny lies not only in how well it can grow its economy, but also in how well it can spread the benefits of growth while protecting its environment.

This notion lay at the heart of Pittsburgh’s “p4” partnership comprising the city of Pittsburgh, Sustainable Pittsburgh and several foundations, including ours. These partners have laid out a vision for our community’s future predicated on people, planet, place and performance. Flint represents a catastrophic failure of all four.

Pittsburgh can model a better way, thanks to a rare convergence of leadership and momentum, by becoming a one-time rust-belt community that is thriving economically by opening the doors of possibility wide to everyone, not just the privileged; by protecting the environment that sustains and defines us; by enhancing the character of this place to nurture and inspire us; and by promoting effective, high-performing civic leadership and institutions.

Claude Rains rounds out his role in “Casablanca” with another classic line, “Round up the usual suspects.” It is the perfect expression of how we so often favor the appearance of justice over its reality. If every time a Flint happens we go only after the culprits but not the narrow, misguided vision that produces them, then all we are doing is rounding up the usual suspects.

That’s not good enough, and it’s certainly not good enough here in the Pittsburgh region. Let’s stop being shocked and get to work on creating a truly sustainable future for us all.


Image Source:  Heinz Endowments

Grant Oliphant is President of the Heinz Endowments.  He rejoined the foundation in June 2014, after serving as president and chief executive officer of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years.

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