Tuesday, July 13, 2010

BP and a "Hole in the World" Revisited

On the evening of September 11, 2001, two of America's greatest songwriters--Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles--developed the idea for a song that would express their feelings about the horrific events that had taken place earlier that day.

The song became known as Hole in the World and was released in 2003. With its plaintive lyrics and soaring, gospel-tinged chorus, Hole in the World became a sort of national hymn about a jarring, otherwordly event.

We can't help but think of that song as another otherworldly event--a catastrophic oil leak--unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico. And those thoughts were reinforced recently when author Naomi Klein produced a splendid essay. It's title? "Gulf Oil Spill: A Hole in the World."

We've seen hopeful signs in recent days, with reports that BP has placed a tighter-fitting cap on the gushing leak and plans to test it today. Even if the system works, it is a temporary fix; relief wells that are due to be completed in August still would be needed to stop the leak. Plus, the extent of damage already inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico remains undetermined.

Even if a best-case scenario plays out, we will be left with this question: How did we get into such a mess in the first place? Naomi Klein provides some compelling insights.

The BP spill is not just an industrial accident, Klein writes; it is a violent wound inflicted upon earth itself. And it reflects the ugly conceit with which modern capitalism has come to be practiced. Writes Klein:

If Katrina pulled back the curtain on the reality of racism in America, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP's recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

An intense blame game has been going on for weeks. But Klein says there is plenty of blame to go around, starting with our belief in the brilliance of man:

This Gulf coast crisis is about many things--corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine.

BP and its CEO, Tony Hayward, proved to be perfectly in step with their times. Writes Klein:

This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago, Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads: "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?" Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this was actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behaved in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the revealing ways in which they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent "$39bn to explore for new oil and gas. Yet, the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20m a year."

Cockiness was not limited to the corporate class. It spilled over into the political class, as well:

Drilling without thinking has of course been Republican party policy since May 2008. With gas prices soaring to unprecedented heights, that's when the conservative leader Newt Gingrich unveiled the slogan "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" – with an emphasis on the now. The wildly popular campaign was a cry against caution, against study, against measured action. In Gingrich's telling, drilling at home wherever the oil and gas might be – locked in Rocky Mountain shale, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and deep offshore – was a surefire way to lower the price at the pump, create jobs, and kick Arab ass all at once. In the face of this triple win, caring about the environment was for sissies: as senator Mitch McConnell put it, "in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty." By the time the infamous "Drill Baby Drill" Republican national convention rolled around, the party base was in such a frenzy for US-made fossil fuels, they would have bored under the convention floor if someone had brought a big enough drill.

With the ebb and flow of an evolving story, one element has remained the same:

Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. . . . The company's claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August – repeated by Obama in his Oval Office address – is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.

Can something positive still come out of this disaster in the gulf? Klein says it is possible. But humans had better wise up:

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward's "If you knew you could not fail" credo, the precautionary principle holds that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health" we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. "You act like you know, but you don't know."

That brings us back to one of our all-time favorite Eagles songs--and that is saying something in a catalog that includes such classics as "Desperado," "One of These Nights," "The Last Resort," "Take It Easy," "Hotel California," "Doolin-Dalton," "Life in the Fast Lane," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Take It To The Limit," and many more.

"Hole in the World" is about a different sort of human-made tragedy than the one we face at the moment. But it's central question--oh, how can people be so blind?--still applies:

The Eagles - Hole in the World @ Yahoo! Video

1 comment:

James Greek said...

yea, how could the idiot republicans be so blind?