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Corporate Power Running Amok

The Editorial Board
August 3, 2010

Update: As BP executive Tony Hayward prepares to step down and “get his life back” (along with an $11 million pension), this week brought the news that the catastrophe in the Gulf is the largest ‘accidental’ oil spill in history. While BP gets down to the hard work of white-washing their reputation, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts is raising alarms about the company’s use of chemical dispersants to dissolve the oil. Despite an EPA directive ordering BP to restrict their use, the Coast Guard appears to have regularly granted the company exemptions, signing off as BP “carpet bombed” the Gulf (to steal Markey’s words, not quoted by the Times).

In late July, a group of scientists organized by the Marine Environmental Research Institute issued a statement declaring that combined with the estimated 5 million gallons of crude already befouling the Gulf, BP’s use of ‘Corexit’ (you can’t make this stuff up) posed “grave health risks to marine life and human health and threaten to deplete critical niches in the Gulf food web that may never recover.” Meanwhile, back in the Beltway, there seems to be some doubt as to whether the Democratic Senate will get around to passing legislation regulating offshore drilling.

So we thought this would be a good moment to re-publish our editorial on the Gulf (from the Summer 2010 issue). As in the original posting, this is followed by a fascinating bit of news about American perceptions of “socialism.” We wonder how those poll numbers look now.



The BP oil disaster is of historic proportions, with damages that will exceed any earthquake, tsunami, or industrial accident in terms of long-term environmental impact. Had the Deepwater Horizon explosion been “merely” an accident, we would still feel chastened about our world’s thirst for oil at any cost, and mournful about the ghastly deaths of millions of birds, fish, turtles, dolphin, and other water creatures, and the ruination of some of nature’s most precious nurseries — not to mention the economy and culture of the entire Gulf region. Our mourning turns to rage, however, at the early evidence that this accident resulted from profit-driven risk-taking, disregard for worst-case disaster preparation, and possibly even outright graft flowing to the U.S. government’s regulatory body, Mineral Management Services (see “Notes from a Small Planet,” page 12).

Certainly, BP should be held fully accountable for its foul history of industrial neglect and informational cover-up. (To wit: In 1991, BP was the most polluting company in the U.S., according to EPA data; in 1999, BP was fined $22 million for illegally dumping toxic wastes in Alaska; in 2005, BP was criticized by OSHA for “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels” after an explosion at a refinery in Texas; in 2006, BP was responsible for leaking over a million liters of oil in Alaska’s North Slope — and so on.) Yet the incremental degradation of our planet has no price tag, and the fundamental lesson of this disaster extends way beyond BP’s bad behavior. As if the financial meltdown of 2009 were not proof enough, what’s going on in the Gulf reveals the utter inability of unregulated capitalism to meet the twin challenges of economic and environmental sustainability.

This time it was BP, but there are dozens of other corporations taking shortcuts, potentially just as disastrous, whether in drilling for oil, mining coal, producing and transporting chemicals, or generating power. Even for those rare companies that are committed to green technologies, social responsibility, and the precautionary principle (which places the burden of proof about environmental safety onto business, not onto environmentalists and whistle-blowers, as was explained by Bernard Bulkin, a former chief scientist at BP, in an interview in this magazine in September 2008), there is an unremitting pressure to increase profits, and this leads to shortcuts, risk-taking, technological overreach, and “accidents.” Join this marketplace pressure to the corporate world’s vast wealth and influence and what you have is a world in desperate need of united, global action against “business as usual,” yet paralyzed about mobilizing the collective will of humanity to change course.

President Obama is one of the few leaders with the potential to make a difference here, given his rhetorical gifts and his stated commitment to developing a “green economy.” His early failure to project a sense of national emergency about the Gulf oil disaster was appalling, however, and his unwillingness to confront corporate power head-on in his first eighteen months has made his office seem small.

The disaster in the Gulf can be redeemed only by a systemic clean-up that extends to our political environment. We need leaders with the courage and prophetic energy to mobilize Americans to make a patriotic commitment to changing our profligate energy consumption and protecting our planet. We need also to recognize the dangers of permitting small groups of corporate directors to make decisions that affect the entire human race without having to be accountable to government (and, in many cases, without even paying taxes). Legislation must be demanded that removes the legal fiction of personhood from corporations and removes the corporate shield behind which their managers and directors hide, protected from personal liability. Finally, it is high time to discuss the nationalization or, better yet, internationalization of Big Oil and other industries that are too big to be permitted to fail in their environmental and social responsibility. Call this unrealistic, if you like, but the environmental crisis begs for radical alternatives to business as usual.


American Views of Socialism

While Newsweek was obviously tongue-in-cheek when it responded to the financial crisis with a headline (February 10th, 2009), “We’re All Socialists Now,” U.S public opinion about socialism is not as universally negative as rightwing voices would have us believe. A Pew Research Center poll of May 10th, 2010 determined that 29 percent of Americans have “a positive reaction to the word socialism” (59 percent report a negative reaction), with Democrats feeling more positive than negative by 44 to 43 percent and 43 percent of people under 30 sharing the feeling. (Among the under-30 crowd, negative reactions to the word “capitalism” are reported by 48 percent.) In a February, 2010 Gallup poll, 36 percent of Americans expressed a “positive image” about socialism (versus 58 percent with a negative image). In an April, 2010 Rasmussen poll, only 53 percent of Americans said that capitalism is preferable to socialism, with 20 percent preferring socialism and 27 percent “unsure.” Americans under 30 “are essentially evenly divided: 37 percent prefer capitalism, 33 percent socialism, and 30 percent are undecided.”