- The first is that complexity can rapidly outstrip our capacity to cope when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.
- The second is that corporations cannot be trusted to have our best interests at heart.
- The third lesson is that we must take immediate steps to do a better job of protecting out planet.
- And the fourth is that happy talk is no substitute for clear-eyed analysis and sound policy.
Our ability to build complex systems we may not be able to control was driven home when we saw how rapidly the world economy imploded when sophisticated financial instruments such as derivatives and credit default swaps began unraveling. And this lesson also applies even more to technology. In the New York Times, David Brooks, the thinking man’s conservative, analyzes why humans often fail to assess the real risks associated with complex systems.
Companies such as BP are quick to invest in hiring the best minds to develop ways to drill oil in strange and hostile deep-water environments where no human can go. But they are slow to spend on developing adequate and effective plans to deal with any resulting problems.
Which leads to lesson two that corporations cannot be trusted. Rand Paul’s assertion that “accidents happen” expresses the Republican/libertarian pro-business view that corporations can be trusted to do the right thing because doing so makes good business sense. By that same logic, we should not have any violent crime because people should be bright enough to see the terrible consequences that likely lay ahead. We know that even well-meaning people can make tragic decisions, but corporations whose only morality is blackening the bottom line are even more likely to court disaster in an effort to keep stockholders happy.
The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that says corporations have all the rights that people do. What about the same responsibilities? Once this emergency is over, I want to see the president lose his cool and frog-march those BP execs straight to Guantanamo. I categorically oppose rendition, except in the case of the BP CEO Carl-Henric Svaberg who wants us to know how “big and important” his company.
Those of us old enough to remember the Seventies actually knew a time before both of our political parties were wholly owned subsidiaries of the big corporations. Back then, environmental groups had the power to stop unrelenting development with only the help of a tiny snail darter, and young people flocked to their cause. But Democrats, tired of being outspent by big-business Republicans, soon began courting corporate dollars and the push to invest in green energy alternatives was waved aside as hopelessly naive. Jimmy Carter’s bracing dose of reality quickly gave way to Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America happy talk.
We have lost our way. Canada requires oil companies to build a relief well at the same time they do deep-water drilling, while we take unconscionable risks in the name of free enterprise. We may now find ourselves facing the terrible choice between waiting months for a relief well to be built now or following the Russians’ advice to detonate a nuclear warhead to stop the leak.
Maybe it is too early, while the disaster is still unfolding, to push for a renewed commitment to saving the planet. But as the ravages of climate change become more apparent every day – and our confidence that we have the capacity to undo the damage by some technological miracle grows dimmer – perhaps young and old will unite in doing whatever it takes to wrest decision-making about our collective future from corporate hands.
Which leads to the last lesson, which is that being positive is not an answer but a mindset. Morning in America was a public relations campaign designed to win an election, not a coherent strategy that will bring about a brighter day.
I think back to those BP commercials designed to make us think of the company as warm and fuzzy idealists – Beyond Petroleum, looking for green solutions. Yet even as we are fighting the consequences of BP’s potentially criminal decisions to cut corners in the gulf, we find that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline owned in part by BP had to be shut down two days ago when oil started to spill.
Positive thinking alone will not save the planet. Building support for a greener future matters, but only if it translates into the political power and will to push back against corporate greed and excess. And to do that, we cannot let ourselves avoid looking at the harsh reality that we are indeed turning this planet into a “smoking, glowing, oily mess,” as Representative and perpetual presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich said the other day.