Monday, May 3, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention To BP's Pound(ing)

Let’s face it: the Gulf Coast shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have never been bastions of higher education, elite society, and fine culture. Wharves and piers along the region’s bayous and estuaries have never hosted old school regattas or glittering yacht clubs. Gritty, smelly, and saucy have been defining characteristics of the stretch of Gulf waterfront between Texas and Florida for generations.

Yes, middle-class resort communities have managed to stake claims on the prettier stretches of beaches, but the only value most A-lister's have for this beleaguered working-class coastline centers on the decadent seafood harvested just offshore.

Which makes the impending ecological and economic disaster lapping ever closer to this productive shoreline even more frustrating for the people who will be hit the hardest: blue-collar hand-to-mouth laborers who, for generations, have managed to wrest a meager living from these waters.

Natural disasters have come and gone, along with the occasional industrial accident, leaving scars but never decimating the region. BP’s recent loss of the Deepwater Horizon, however, might just be a game-changer.

The Big Boys vs. The Little Boys

Now, maybe it’s unfair to classify this situation as a conflict between the classes. Certainly, it’s more than that. But read between the lines of the many reports being filed from the Gulf, and the picture being painted becomes one of a resource-rich but marginally-respected region being taken for granted for far too long.

Corporate executives and political suits positing best- and worst-case scenarios seem cut off from the increasingly-destitute fishermen with weird accents stuck on the dock. Hoteliers and restaurateurs who have just recovered from recent hurricanes Katrina and Rita stand nearby, listening to their summer reservations calling to cancel. Hurricanes are one thing, they tell reporters; oil spills, however, mean someone’s to blame.

Ahh yes, the “B” word – that dreaded thing the corporate and political types have been jockeying to avoid.

Considering BP’s rich history at disasters, death, cover-up, and overall industrial sloppiness, the company has become quite adept at spinning its newest worst-practices prize. For example, in a press release posted on the Internet, BP provided a link to “Learn More About How BP Is Helping” clean up the mess.

Um, excuse me, but how patronizing is that PR statement? Do you see its spin? BP is “helping” to clean up it’s own mess? Isn’t that like a kid “helping” his mom clean up the milk he spilled? Somewhere, some ethics-devoid marketing professor is beaming her face off at the star pupil who came up with that one.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so glib about BP. After all, maybe its current crisis represents just another incident in a long-running string of unavoidable happenstance for the company.

Companies Think Prevention Isn't Profitable

Whatever BP's pattern of problems, how many defenders of conservative big-business mistakes shrug off personal injury mishaps and environmental foul-ups as simply part of the cost of doing business? How many people blithely trust that capitalism’s self-correcting mechanism will kick in at the appropriate time – the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, or the final mistake before profitability becomes jeopardized. The more a mistake costs a company, the harder they’ll work at avoiding it in the future.

Ah, “in the future” doesn’t buy Wall Street confidence today, does it? Does that explain why BP and their subcontractor, Transocean, didn’t already have multiple mechanisms in place to more quickly plug up their well? Should they assume that everything will work properly the first time and that spending money on second-guessing safeguards and planning for the worst-case scenario is for sissies – or Europeans? (European corporations have a reputation for spending so much time planning for the worst that present development opportunities pass them by.)

If this oil spill had resulted after multiple accident prevention measures had failed (not just the one), we’d be talking about a different story, wouldn’t we? But we’re not talking about a colossal failure of best intentions, the foiling of redundant engineering, or even incredibly bad happenstance. We’re talking about minimal, fingers-crossed, that’s-what-insurance-is-for white-knuckle greed. Only this time, they ain’t ridin’ the gusher to shareholder bliss.

Conservatives whine about regulations, oversight, and restrictive legislation, but in how many cases were such regulations, oversight, and legislation enacted only after an industry failed to self-police, and develop its own failsafe best practices with worst-case scenarios in mind?

Sure, stuff like that costs more at the outset, but if American business had a broader view of long-term profitability based on short-term planning, how much more robust would our economy be? How less frequent would industrial accidents be? How much more lucrative would opportunities be for greater numbers of people to share in the financial pie?

It’s one thing for industrial heavyweights to argue for the status quo. It’s another thing for entrepreneurs or disenfranchised people to challenge the status quo with better ideas, different questions, fresher answers, and – ooh, here it is – morality and ethics. Some conservatives like to run and hide behind the banner of economic prudence when people like me start talking like this. And sure, if the drilling had been uneventful and BP’s rig quietly pumped up a king’s ransom worth of black gold from the Gulf’s floor, we’d have never even heard about it.

But since we know what can happen when deep-water drilling goes bad, how detrimental can it be to spend some extra dollars up-front to proactively develop and deploy back-up measures that may not be used? Does having just one blowout preventer seem adequate when we’re talking about the loss of a $2.4 billion a year commercial fishing industry?

They’re Fishermen. So What?

What is the point at which conservatives of faith begin to realize that extreme capitalism operates on far fewer biblical imperatives than we often assume? Imperatives like fairness. Balance. And those fruits of love, patience, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

An honest day’s labor is an honest day’s labor. One type of labor may not be valued as much as another type in our capitalist society, so different types of labor get paid differently. But toil is still toil. Are BP's profits more important than fishermen doing their best in a one-industry economy along the shore?

Am I wrong to characterize as immoral the deprivation of another person’s legitimate industry through measurable deceit, carelessness, power, or hubris?

Not that BP and its contractors are big bad wolves simply by virtue of their sheer size, political influence, and profit margins. It’s how they operate their daily functions and respond to disasters like this that determine if they’re big bad wolves. After all, other energy companies seem to operate just fine, with both impeccable safety records and satisfied shareholders.

You've heard the old saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Just because BP is based in Britain doesn't mean a pound of cure has a better exchange rate.

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