Monday, August 9, 2010

Don't Get Mad, Get Political: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Corporate Incorrigibility

Jake Greear
Johns Hopkins University

After more than three months the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill appears to have finally stopped flowing, but not before the gusher became one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. This protracted disaster has left an ocean of dispersed oil in the Gulf of Mexico and a haze of outrage, fear, suspicion, helplessness, and uncertainty hanging in the North American air. People naturally want someone to blame, and media figures have been happy to oblige, alternately heaping scorn on Mr. Hayward, BP, President Obama, “the administration,” and occasionally Haliburton. No doubt there is enough blame to go around, but I am afraid that by concentrating on specific figures or specific instances of incompetence and negligence we are missing the point. 
The spill shows that we have a problem, but the solution is not more competent, less selfish, or less neglectful people at the helms of corporations and governments. We do not need a more truly repentant Tony Hayward or a more righteously angry president. What we need is to institute more vigilant and robust democratic control over extractive industries. 
Debates like the one ignited by this spill tend to polarize into two positions. Some lash out at the big, greedy corporations, which they see as composed of callous white collar criminals. Others see corporations as groups of regular people just like you and me who are just trying to earn a living doing the heroic work that brings us the goods. It seems to me that both positions make the mistake of anthropomorphizing corporations―attributing guilt, redemption, patriotism, compassion, or betrayal to them. But corporations are not people, nor are they even the simple sum of the people composing them. They are organizations that powerfully mobilize certain human desires―the desire for wealth, the desire for cheap goods, or the desire to apply one's abilities as part of a team to solve interesting problems―while they demobilize other desires and motivations―such as love of place, the desire to pass on a way of life to the next generation, pride in one's work as a participation in the world, or the desire to work toward the public good as a member of a larger community. 
Many activists would be surprised to find out that some of the people running these corporations are fairly nice and thoughtful people. But even if the people working for corporations are decent human beings, the logic that mobilizes corporate commercial activity will always be ethically narrow, economically short-sighted, and ecologically blind. To expect a corporation to act as a good neighbor or a good citizen is as nonsensical as it is to admonish one for “greed” or ecological exploitation.
Extractive industries like coal and oil production provide only the most obvious illustrations of this point. Even putting aside the dangers of fossil fuel consumption at the planetary scale, oil and coal companies particularly have an inherent tendency to ecological violence. This very visible crisis has been a good reminder of this fact. Looking for a “bad” company to boycott or a “bad” CEO to run out on a rail feels good, but it is self-defeating. Tony Hayward's ouster accomplishes less than nothing. After all, what would a “good” CEO look like? A good CEO would pursue the shareholders interests selflessly, competently, boldly, and energetically, and try to build a strong company and provide a good product to the customer. A good CEO will take chances, seek forgiveness over permission, and find inventive ways to bend the rules. In other words, a good CEO is often the worst thing that could happen to the communities that have the misfortune of living near coal or oil reserves. 
The executives at BP who chose to drill under a mile of ocean knowing a mistake could devastate an entire region are nothing if not true to form. Of course other oil companies are no different. If allowed, none will hesitate to treat whole regions and the lives they support as expendable. BP certainly must be held fully accountable for this particular catastrophe. And it is important to hit them where it hurts―i.e. in the pocketbook. But we should save our anger for our own political failings. As relatively un-oppressed citizens living amid the activities of an advanced industrial economy it is our duty to protect ourselves, the places we call home, and the ecosystems that sustain us from the inherent excesses of corporate activity, and on the whole we are not doing it. The lesson of the Deepwater Horizon spill is that we have to pull our heads out of the trough long enough to take note of the increasingly outlandish and dangerous “private” economic activities going on around us. We must abandon the assumption that some technician, expert, or bureaucrat somewhere has things under control. Unless a day comes when we can get by without the jobs, goods, and wealth corporations create, we cannot shirk our political responsibility to keep them in check.
Unfortunately there are many nation-states that lack the political institutional stability and efficacy to enforce such oversight. Communities are falling victim to ecological violence for this very reason all around the world. However, in spite of the imperfections of the United States as a democracy, in this country we really have no such excuse. Here we suffer primarily from a cynical pseudo-patriotic discourse spuriously linking corporate entitlement to individual liberty. To corporations this shameful myth is a giant “KICK ME” sign on America's back. 
The legislation currently being pursued at the U.S. Congressional level is a small start. But the unpopular truth is that the enforcement of reasonable constraints on offshore oil drilling will mean that certain oil reserves will be simply off-limits because it is impossible or impractical to get at them safely. It has become painfully clear that those under a mile of ocean should be among the off-limits reserves. Rand Paul's recent statement is exactly right as far as it goes: “accidents happen.” Whatever series of violations may have led up to the spill, the spill itself was an accident, and it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of further accidents. 
My own experience in the construction industry leaves me deeply skeptical of the idea that our make-or-break regulations should deal in the minutia of, for example how the o-rings on blowout preventers are serviced. If regulation works at that level of high-tech specialization it seems to me inevitable that a “cozy” relationship will develop between the overseers and the overseen since no-one who has not worked intensively with such technology in situ has the expertise to adequately oversee it. Thus we end up having to trust the industries to regulate themselves―an experiment that has failed several times over. We do need standards for the machines and technologies involved, but the more important component of democratic oversight has to be common-sense rules, which educated citizens can understand and debate, that prevent the stakes of an error from getting too high. If a slip-up at work (whether by a worker, a machine, or even an inspector) means a whole region's way of life and means of living can be destroyed, the stakes are simply too high. Your work must immediately stop. If this is what a deep water drilling accident looks like―if what has transpired over the last three months is even a possible scenario―then deep-water drilling is simply not OK. 
It is true that if this disaster is confronted in a politically responsible way a few jobs stand to be lost, and already those who are out of work due to the temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling are crying foul. But if we must choose between a few jobs extracting the finite reserves of oil from under the Gulf and the many jobs harvesting the Gulf's renewable stocks of fish, then we must choose in favor of the latter. The jobs of the past, in this case, are the jobs of the future. 
Of course oil extraction in the Gulf is not going to stop altogether even if deep-water drilling is halted. And at this point it appears an apathetic public and a cowed leadership will simply tell the millions on the Gulf to take their hush money and wait on the next spill. BP congratulates itself for reportedly setting aside 20 billion U.S. dollars for paying out “legitimate claims.” What this means is that BP has offered to retroactively pay a price of its own choosing for something it long ago claimed: the prerogative to despoil a whole ecosystem. But do people not have the right NOT to put that prerogative up for sale in the first place? There are a lot of people on the Gulf Coast who are now fighting to defend this heretofore taken-for-granted right to basic ecological security. Here's hoping they somehow succeed. 


  1. Jake, that's a marvelous post. Thank you so much. Beautifully clear and resonant. I owe you a read of some of your writing--sorry for the delay. Tim

  2. At last! As a former oil spill contingency planning analyst, I am so relieved to see someone noticed that the Emperor has no clothes. Thank you for a though-provoking and intelligent post!