By Daniel Rossi-Keen
About 10 years ago, my neighbor’s woodshed caught on fire in the middle of the night.
Just before going to bed, my neighbor placed hot coals from his fireplace in a bucket, doused them with water, and went to sleep. Sometime later, in the wee hours of the morning, another neighbor discovered that a raging fire had engulfed the shed and was threatening to ignite both adjacent homes. Springing into action, our mutual neighbor called the fire department, woke up the owner of the shed, and together they worked to keep the flames from spreading to our homes by using a nearby garden hose until the fire department arrived.
Due to these quick actions, my house did not catch on fire. The shed was utterly decimated. The home where the fire started had considerable melted siding and some roof damage. But quick and transparent action, cooperation, and rapid communication kept this unfortunate situation from becoming disastrous.
Keeping these events in mind, I would like for you to imagine an alternate version of this story for a moment. Suppose that while this incident was occurring my neighbor neglected to describe the situation as a fire, and instead indicated that “a rise in heat had been detected originating from our backyard” and that “depending on wind direction this rise in heat may be detected in certain areas offsite as well.” Suppose they also indicated that due to this “rise in heat that was detected” there was “excess free hydrocarbon that unfortunately made its way offsite and generated an odor.”
Imagine that instead of providing regular updates, my neighbor waited nearly two weeks to communicate with me about the event, at which time they spent the first 40 minutes of our “conversation” reading to me from a prepared script that was carefully crafted to recount all the good they had done for me. As part of this prepared script, imagine if my neighbor began by reminding me that they had donated $1.70 in the last year (the equivalent of 0.000017% of the value of their $100,000 home) to community projects that I cared deeply about. And suppose that this reminder was followed with the announcement that they plan to grow their giving all the way to $5.70 in the coming year (0.000057% of the value of their $100,000 home).
Imagine that after offering a cursory apology, my neighbor then spent 90 minutes describing what was clearly a fire in ways that both deflected responsibility and belied the use of plain language at nearly every turn. Along the way, imagine that my neighbor had marshaled the services of an “independent expert” to explain preemptively why nothing that happened during the fire was proven to have any demonstrable consequence.
When confronted with objections from others in the neighborhood who experienced discomfort from the considerable smoke created during the fire, suppose my neighbor explained away such headaches, nasal congestion, throat irritation, coughing and runny eyes as “subjective symptoms” that “usually go away once the detected rise in heat passed.” And suppose they also repeatedly explained that such smoke “would not be expected to cause even transient discomfort or irritation after minutes or hours of exposure,” that the smoke generated from the detected rise in heat was “below levels that would suggest a long-term health concern,” and that the smoke they generated was “unlikely to be associated with even transient discomfort.”
Suppose that my neighbor, when asked about the smoke detectors that were going off around the neighborhood during the incident, responded that he was not “able to conclude that the smoke detector alerts had anything to do with the detected rise in heat that occurred in the northwest corner of his yard.”
Suppose that my neighbor said all of this with a straight face, even though that same neighbor had a history of starting dangerous fires, failing to communicate clearly about such fires, and obscuring his responsibility for doing so. And suppose he had this history in many other neighborhoods where he also owned homes.
Suppose that after all this talk about a “detected rise in heat,” my neighbor reminded me that he should be trusted because he “believed in telling the truth and maintaining hard-earned trust.” Suppose he reminded me that he “tells the truth because he wants to be accepted as a valuable member of the community and because it’s the right thing to do.” Suppose he reminded me, on the back of all this, that he knew that trustworthiness was “what I expected of him” and “what he expected of himself as well.”
Finally, suppose that after all this, my neighbor again stressed all the good he had done for me before reiterating that he “wanted to be a good neighbor” and reminding me to “stay safe.”
Supposing that my neighbor acted in the manner described above, few among us would be inclined to confer upon him the label of “good neighbor.” Few observers would fail to be persuaded by such patronizing explanations, intentionally deflective rhetoric, scripted responses, and incomplete answers. All but the least discerning among us would quickly see through the veneer of feigned concern and would instead understand that my neighbor was undertaking a performance intended to deflect, obfuscate, and generate the appearance of concern without engaging in anything approaching neighborly care.
Despite the obvious insincerity of the kind of strategy described above, this is precisely what Shell officials did this past Tuesday evening at a Virtual Community Meeting at which they sought to address an incident that began on April 11. During this incident, benzene and likely other chemicals were released into the air, resulting in strong odors, watery eyes, headaches, nausea, and more for those living nearby. This event, and Shell’s subsequent community meeting, have generated many unanswered questions, concerns, and doubts about the company’s commitment to transparency and its genuine interest in community wellbeing.
Their stated goal of being a “good neighbor” notwithstanding, Shell’s presentation and claims remain insulting to residents of Beaver County. Their actions are decidedly not the actions taken by one who has earned the title of “good neighbor.” Instead, Shell’s actions demonstrate all the marks of an institution that is representing its own interests at all costs, and who is far more concerned with the appearance of neighborliness than with its substance. The style, the content, and the timing of this week’s community meeting all, in their own way, made it glaringly clear that Shell’s rhetoric regarding being a good neighbor is, at present, little more than a well-polished performance.
Being a good neighbor requires timely, genuine and honest relationship building. Being a good neighbor requires a demonstrated commitment to act in the best interests of those in your community. And, most importantly, being a good neighbor requires acting in ways that subvert your interests to the needs of those around you. Shell demonstrated scant few of these qualities in this recent community meeting or the actions leading up to this gathering.
Should Shell wish to earn the title of “good neighbor” it must act in wildly different ways, taking very seriously its own stated goal of “doing better.” Shell must stop violating the law. Shell must communicate immediately, extensively, and transparently about matters of public safety. Shell must work to develop deep and genuine connections to community organizations with whom it both aligns and with whom it has a considerable disagreement. And Shell must demonstrate a concerted willingness to respond authentically and sacrificially to the concerns of those who inhabited Beaver County long before Shell’s arrival.
If and until this very high bar is achieved, Shell’s rhetoric of neighborliness will remain little more than a sophisticated form of community gaslighting that insults residents of the region and confirms the fears of many.
Daniel Rossi-Keen, Ph.D., is the co-owner of eQuip Books, a community bookstore in Aliquippa and the executive director of RiverWise, a nonprofit employing sustainable development practices to create a regional identity around the rivers of Beaver County. You can reach Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org