The Value of Life, Part II
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So how do valuations of human life change over time, and how do they influence our societal decision making? The secret lies in a discipline called value engineering.
Value engineering involves evaluating a given construction project for features or function and considering the tradeoffs versus project cost. The idea is to maximize the value gained for a given expenditure. That is more complicated than "it's just math" because the estimates for both sides of the equation are imprecise. How much is that feature actually going to cost? What is the value of the function that feature provides?
I've spoken with landscape architects who find value engineering frustrating. In large construction projects that run over budget, value engineering is not kind to landscape features. They are installed late in a project and their value is at least partially subjective. Functionally, landscaping provides important functions: erosion control, traffic control, privacy. But there is subjective value as well in the beauty or aesthetics of the project as a whole… and wide disagreement on the value of this function. Landscape architects, it is safe to say, value natural beauty more than engineers and politicians.
Landscape, however, has one immediately practical consequence: it can kill you if not properly managed. A colleague in law once told me about a multi-million dollar judgment their firm had won after a tragic accident. A tree branch had fallen on a windy day and killed a small child. The legal dispute was with the local municipality: whether the tree had been properly maintained by the city, and whether improper maintenance was contributory to the accident.
My own town has to manage this issue, as you might imagine with a town called "Lake Forest". We are a designated Tree City USA and take forestry even more seriously after the Lake Forest Chainsaw Massacre. There are a lot of trees. There are also a lot of things that weaken and kill trees, as it turns out, everything from the Asian Longhorned Beetle to gypsy moths to all manner of diseases.
We had a scheduled tree removal in front of my home last month, as our town does every summer in the neighborhood. I asked the workers how they went about picking trees. The process as it turns out is pretty simple. They take the top 200 riskiest trees in the city right-of-way and remove those. Essentially, they triage the risk vs. the available budget and do what they can.
As it turns out though, that might not be enough. A week after they came through, we had a significant summer storm, and another tree that had not been selected lost a major branch, destroying our mailbox and blocking the street for some time until the city was able to chop the branch into small enough sections to move it.
Are we spending enough on tree maintenance? Well, no one was killed. But someone could have been. So should we spend more? But what about street maintenance – potholes can kill people too? The risk tradeoffs rapidly become complex. Value engineering within a project is a challenge. Value engineering across a range of projects… it's now more about gut feel and politics. And as we will discuss here, gut feel on risk tends to be wrong.