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Sunday, June 27, 2010

OUR PLANET EARTH

BP oil disaster is one more chance to learn badly needed lesson


More than two months ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in a ball of fire, killing 11 workers and leaving a crippled wellhead that continues to bleed millions of liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

If there is a silver lining to the thick, deadly clouds of oil that swirl in ever-widening currents, it remains hidden. Still, beyond the fingerpointing and blame games, there are important lessons to be learned if we care to.

Optimists claim that this disaster will help us prevent comparable accidents in the future. But looking back, the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989 did not substantially change the way we transport oil. Nor did the chemical- poisoning tragedy in Bhopal, India, in 1984 ensure that multinational corporations now demand state-of-the-art technologies and procedures in their developing world factories.

For pessimists, the refrain is, "Stuff happens, get on with life."

One of those is Matthew Lynn, a columnist for Bloomberg News, who wrote recently that BP's primary concern should be to its shareholders.

"Your job is to look after the owners of the company, not make yourself acceptable to a country that doesn't want you anymore. . . . If BP cuts its losses and gets out now, it can carry on fine in Japan, France, Argentina and all the other countries where no one is really that bothered by what happens in the Gulf of Mexico," Lynn wrote in a June 13 piece carried in this paper.

Sad, but probably true.

How many people stopped buying Exxon products after the Valdez accident and, of those who did, how many still maintain their boycott?

In fact, with profits topping $50 million a day last year, Exxon Mobil Corporation is doing just fine. It is one of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world, and over the past two decades its lawyers have quietly appealed their way through the legal system in the United States to have the Valdez penalties dramatically reduced.

Furthermore, like all multinational corporations, many of BP's interests do not carry the company's name or iconic yellow flower logo, including Arco gasoline, Castrol motor oil, am/pm convenience stores and the Wild Bean Cafe coffee-shop chain, which are all BP owned.

So BP will take a big hit, drilling procedures will change and government oversight will be tightened.

But the bigger questions that need to be asked about our reliance on fossil fuels will once again be shunted aside, because oil will remain the lifeblood of our society's soaring energy demands. All of us are accomplices in ensuring that big oil survives and thrives, at the expense of our planet and our society.

However, if we are willing to look beyond the immediate problems of poisoned waters and dying wildlife, there are two big lessons we can learn from the BP fiasco. The first is about human systems and the second is about natural systems.

First, it is time we admit how little we know about the industries, corporations, regulators and politicians that we entrust with running our society.

At the risk of grave oversimplification, in democratic states we elect politicians who oversee the regulators, and these regulators oversee industry. Theoretically, voters keep an eye on the politicians, but, in truth, corporate interests keep a much closer eye on our elected officials than we do, with lobbyists ensuring that corporations are the first priority of far too many politicians.

And it's understandable: Lobbyists are paid to wield cash and pay close attention to details. Voters tend to cast votes and then go back to their daily lives. Only when the economy tanks, or our governments decide to wage war, do we give our politicians a closer look.

Too often it takes a tragedy for us to peer into the decision-making labyrinth and realize that civil servants are not serving the public interest. Rather, they are serving industry and themselves, with the public a distant third.

As anathema as big government is to many, the world has become too small and our lives too closely tied to the policies of corporations and governments to allow money to make the rules. Greater transparency and better oversight of business and government have become more essential than ever to the healthy functioning of democracy and the protection of our biosphere.

The second lesson, equally fundamental to ensuring that we have a safe and sustainable society, is that we all need to know more about our natural environment and ecosystems and begin to structure human systems within the constraints of nature's limitations.

How many of us really understand how nature provides for all life on our planet? Just as good governance needs to be a fundamental requirement at all levels of academic study, from elementary school through university, so too should environmental studies.

As a university educator, I am too often amazed how little students know about basic, comprehensive ecosystem services upon which our lives and economies depend.

Similar to the games JENGA and Pick Up Sticks, our lives are part of a complex network of myriad natural systems and actors that interact and rely on each other while supplying essential functions for humans that include provisioning, regulating and supporting services.

Nature's provisioning services include the food we eat, the fibers we wear, the fuels many depend on, the fresh water we drink and the genetic resources that are the foundation of all breeding, as well as the touchstone for today's surging biotech industries.

Nature also offers essential regulating services to which most of us give little or no thought. Plants and animals that inhabit ecosystems regulate our air quality, purify our water, treat our waste, prevent erosion, control disease and pests, and pollinate the plants that feed us and the animals we eat.

More fundamentally, these provisioning and regulating services are guaranteed by supporting services that include soil formation, photosynthesis, the cycling of nutrients such as nitrogen and the water cycle that keeps rain falling, rivers flowing and crops irrigated.

If our ecosystems are compromised and become unable to provide any of these services, our quality of life could suffer dramatically. For example, scientists have recently found an alarming decline in bee populations worldwide. Without the pollination services bees provide, crop failures could pose a very real threat to global food supplies.

In short, it is time we recognize that transparency in governance and understanding how ecosystems function have become essential knowledge systems for ensuring quality of human life.

Inevitably the BP disaster will leave a legacy of anger, frustration, destruction and death, but even then our attention will wander and our ire will focus on new crises.

Still, as an aging optimist, I can't help but think how different the world could be if just this once we could maintain our indignation long enough to begin making some of the changes our kids need and deserve.

Just this once.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Chuo University Law Faculty and Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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