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The Lesson of BP: Too Much Greed? Too Little Guts?

We’ll be living for decades, or longer, with the consequences of the BP disaster. That much seems clear. So the question now is, how — how will we proceed after Deepwater Horizon? What lessons will we take in and use?

Randy Kennedy, in the New York Times’ Week in Review suggests one possibility. He likens BP’s reckless pursuit of oil to the obsession that brought down Captain Ahab in his pursuit of Moby-Dick. The lesson we still haven’t learned, Kennedy implies, is a moral one: the dangers lurking not only in oil hunters’ greed and in the hubris of believing we can control nature, but in our own self-indulgence as well.

Kennedy closes with the admonition from Columbia University’s Melville expert Andrew Delbanco — that the BP horror is in part of our own making because, “we want our comforts but we don’t want to know too much about...what makes them possible.” In the same issue, Thomas Friedman seconds the point in his it’s-our-fault column “This Time is Different.

While greed, hubris and denial have contributed to the worst single environmental catastrophe in our history, to suggest they are “causes” gets us nowhere. A character diagnosis is the evasion, the real denial, we can’t afford.

For one, it leads to despair — since few of us can imagine the end of human greed, hubris, or our tendency to deny what’s uncomfortable.

Worse, the diagnosis diverts us from the first essential step in avoiding continuing global ecocide: that we accept what we now know about our nature and work with that. We know, for example, that concentrated power and lack of transparency bring out the very worst in us. Yet we’ve fallen for an economic and political doctrine with rules certain to speed both.

Nowhere is that concentration more evident than in the fossil fuel industries, where, in 2004, just five companies controlled two thirds of gasoline sales. Their economic might dwarfs that of most countries. Such concentrated economic power infuses and distorts political decision making in its interests.

So we’ve ended up creating the systemic danger FDR warned us against: “the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than their [the people’s] democratic state itself.” That “in its essence, is fascism,” he told Congress in 1938. Such concentrated power is at the root of what has greased not only massive public subsidies for Big Oil — pushing aside safer, renewable energies — but also BP’s ability to stack up egregious safety violations with impunity.

Corporate lobbyists for companies like BP have become so powerful, that in 2009, for every single legislator elected to look out for our common interests, two dozen, mostly corporate, lobbyists spent $3.5 billion working Congress for their private interests. That sum has doubled in less than a decade.

We humans can’t change our nature but we can change the rules that bring out the worst in our nature.

So rather than focusing on “greed or hubris” as a cause of this disaster, let’s tackle the systemic problem that lets these traits triumph: rules that encourage concentrated power - such as those tolerating monopoly power and corporate secrecy — and its sway over public choices.

Let our takeaway from the BP nightmare be that we as a people get serious about removing the power of private wealth in our nation’s governance: enacting, for example, the Fair Elections Now Acts, pending in both houses of Congress that would usher in voluntary public financing of congressional elections.

Only as we move to democratic accountability do we have a fighting chance to enact commonsense rules to keep power dispersed, mandate transparency, and align our need for energy resources and basic fairness with nature’s unbendable rules. This, not redesigning our nature, is the road to preventing another Deepwater Horizon.

If I’m right, maybe I need to become more nuanced in my objections to a focus on character; for there is part of our moral makeup that sure needs fortification: courage. To move toward democracy by and for the people, and against established interests, takes guts.

Yes, we’ve been told that the “meek shall inherit the earth,” but I’ve become convinced that if that turns out to be true, it will be a scorched earth. The only human beings who will be able to inherit a flourishing earth are the courageous. So let’s bulk up our civil courage and go for real democracy.

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