British Petroleum went a mile down to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, to sink an oil pipe two more miles beneath the earth’s crust. It released an unimaginable amount of pressure from inside the earth, so much pressure that the weight of all that water is nothing by comparison. The disaster is six weeks old now, six weeks of oil gushing out into the Gulf. We all have to hope that the pressure underneath the crust begins to diminish a bit. What a reminder of the wisdom that urges caution: don’t mess with Mother Nature.
We all want the leak to end. If the leak won’t stop, at least we can indulge our indignation: we can blame big oil, one of our favorite targets in the pantheon of multinational corporations that have a bad reputation:
“BP now stands for ‘Bad Partner,’ “ Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, said Monday. “I think that BP has not demonstrated a level of competence or trustworthiness that merits having the U.S. government standing next to it at press conferences.”
Have a look at Markey’s words. He compares the United States government’s competence and trustworthiness with British Petroleum’s, and says “We’re too good for you.” Have you ever heard anything more absurd? I’m not talking about the performance of either the government or BP in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’m talking about the overall reputation of the two organizations. Can you think of an organization in the West with a more consistent record of incompetence and dishonesty than the federal government? I can’t.
I’m not talking about individual units of the government, either. We have civil servants who serve honorably. Members of the armed forces do their jobs courageously and well. We have political leaders who have good intentions. The government’s overall record of malfeasance, though, is astonishing. Who but someone on the inside looking out, like Congressman Markey, could possibly utter a condescending snub like that? He might ask how many people think Congress demonstrates his smug level of competence and trustworthiness. Would you want to stand next to Rep. Markey at a press conference?
The U. S. government completely depends on British Petroleum to plug that leak, but how does it behave? It behaves like a bully and a jerk. Instead of attending a memorial service with the families of the workers who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon, President Obama goes to Louisiana to warn British Petroleum, “we’re going to keep our boot on your neck.” Interior Secretary Salazar boasts, “We have them by the neck.” There’s something about BP’s neck that has Washington in thrall. Meantime, BP does what it can to stop the leak. Don’t count on DC for moral support, though.
The significant thing is that the government seems all too ready to turn even an environmental disaster of this scale into just another game of political hardball. Did someone say the dread word Katrina? We have to get out ahead of this one! Did someone ironically quote the previous president’s famous words, “Heckuva job, Brownie”? Put a lid on it! Don’t let that happen to us. We’re not going to let this disaster make us look bad!
I’ll give you a clue, you jerks. Your efforts to keep from looking bad are making you look bad. You want to look like you’re in charge, but all you can do right now is help out the best you can. You use manly images to look good at British Petroleum’s expense, but you don’t look good at all. You should be helping out; instead you deliver impotent threats that just make you look overbearing and incongruously silly.
British Petroleum has unequivocally taken ownership of the gusher and its consequences. Its people are doing difficult, dangerous work to contain the disaster. We, through our government, can offer them encouragement and some material help. What’s the point of going to Louisiana to humiliate them and assert dominance? Does acting like that stop the leak faster? Of course not. Does acting to intimidate give you hope that you won’t suffer a Katrina-like political disaster? That may be your aim, but trying to protect your reputation by acting like an overbearing blowhard just makes your reputation worse.
Let’s say you come upon an accident where someone is bleeding badly. The first order of business is to stop the blood. Deciding whether and where to place blame for the accident comes later. Here we have an accident where the earth itself is bleeding, an outflow poisonous for aquatic creatures. Everyone should respond to the emergency with one thought: find the best way to stop the effluent. Placing blame, threatening legal consequences, acting pushy and officious – these all amount to distractions. Two heads are better than one, and many heads with proper, positive leadership are better than two. First aid must remain the only priority until the emergency ends. First aid means help that comes before anything else.
Let’s turn off the web cam at the bottom of the sea. Let’s stop arguing about how many barrels of effluent flow out of that riser every day. Does anyone think that British Petroleum will slack off if we stop making humiliating threats? Does anyone think that humiliating threats work better than actual help in an emergency like this? Stop squabbling and hand wringing, threatening and bullying, finger pointing and finger wagging, tongue wagging and tongue lashing. Let’s just help British Petroleum stop the leak. Help them do the job the best they can.
We’ll have ample time to analyze what went wrong later.