As the vein of black gold enriching the Gulf of Mexico finally, or temporarily, dwindles to a trickle, what passes for public debate on American television descends all too predictably into screeching about ‘blame.’ Everyone knows all good movies need a villain and despite a few quiet voices not-so-helpfully reminding us that accidents happen and we should remain stoic in the throes of fate, Americans crave the simplicity and uncomplicated drama of the white hat/black hat narrative.
Certain parties, surprising no one, have nominated President Obama for the role, as if he should don a frogman outfit and sacrifice himself ala John Wayne in Reap the Wild Wind. Given the otherworldly feckless arrogance of BP CEO Tony Haywood, it would seem he craves the part, yet clueless is hardly as satisfying as sinister. Nevertheless, America has coalesced around BP as the bad guy, and given their track record not even John Adams would be eager to defend them. But someone has to, so here goes….
When an institutional arrangement that results in a predictable, almost inevitable event becomes transformed into a freak phenomenon, the result of a single bad apple so to speak, you pretty much guarantee you’ll be spitting out a lot more rotten apple. Or, to invent an old saying, when you invite a bear into your house and he messes on the floor, don’t blame the bear. When you don’t have anyone watching over corporate accounting, or regulations on collateralized debt obligations, or you allow drilling in areas where plugging a leak strains the bounds of known engineering, you’re bound to end up with Enron, AIG and now BP. So in BP and the oil lobby’s defense, they are merely the misunderstood bear. “Isn’t this what you wanted,” they ask? Cheap, plentiful oil for everything big and shiny and wonderful?” It must seem particularly ungrateful to turn on them after one, little accident. Was BP reckless and ill-prepared? Yes, but that’s what corporate bears do. Expecting otherwise will be a ritual of disappointment.
Yet, however satisfying and justified it is to turn BP into the latest corporate shorthand (i.e. Enron, AIG) for pure evil, it hardly tells the whole story. It just as easily could have happened to Shell, Chevron, or whoever, and next time probably will. Oil lobbyists proudly tout decades without a disastrous leak as proof that there’s very little to worry about so we can all go back to the mall. Of course that’s missing the point entirely, but when you’re being paid handsomely to tout the virtues of a heavily polluting product that enriches tyrants and alters the planet’s climate a certain imagination is required. 99% safe sounds wonderful, except for that pesky 1%. Odds, no matter how good, are still only odds. If 1% were actually zero then no one would buy a lottery ticket.
Their scruples may have withered but their strategy is sound. The oil lobby desperately wants to undermine the blame game and make sure that it’s no one’s fault. Fault implies responsibility, which could lead, after a series of interminable Congressional hearings, to…gasp laws. But in this case more laws and regulations are just bricks in the Tower of Babel, empty manifestations of their maker’s hubris, destined to fail. The idea that we can just tinker with the levers, a little stricter here and a bit more oversight there, and reach the nirvana of absolute safety is a naïve self-delusion, born of the fevered narcissism of over-empowered bureaucrats, given force by preening politicians craving affirmation, and, finally, tolerated by a somnambulistic public eager to be told the quiet, warm lies of bedtime stories.
Nevertheless, a villain must be found and I nominate us. Toss a rock in the air, it’ll hit someone guilty. There’s no pleading innocent when the evidence is as high as the nearest landfill. Every car, every building, every piece of plastic is manifestation of our collective culpability. Every time I forget to bring a tote bag to the supermarket and every time you forget to turn off your computer. We are simply not mentally prepared to face the consequences of our consumption. The shame in this is that if an entire generation of politicians hadn’t fallen somewhere on a scale ranging from indifferent to corrupt, a transformative energy policy would have happened so gradually that no one would have noticed. Now? Not so much.
Now we must gnash our teeth and pull our hair as energy policy is shelved yet again due to the pathetic exigencies of contemporary American politics, where nothing, nothing, nothing is ever as important as making your opponent look bad. That this will be considered a ‘victory’ in certain circles is all any impartial observer needs to know to condemn this sham “democracy,” where a supermajority is needed to accomplish anything more substantial than passing a resolution in favor of girl scouts. But who are we to complain – you vote a political bear into Congress, what do you expect?
David Pierotti is a proposal writer at Harvest Power. The company develops, builds, owns and operates next-generation organics recycling facilities that harvest the renewable energy, nutrients, and organic matter from discarded organic materials using best-in-class technologies for composting, anaerobic digestion, and biomass gasification.