Lesson #1 of BP oil spill
Capitalism can’t protect the environment
Published May 20, 2010 9:42 PM
As millions of gallons of crude oil continue to spew into the Gulf of Mexico,
the owner of the collapsed oil rig that caused the disaster is trying
desperately to elude responsibility for what has already cost the lives of 11
workers and threatens to become the worst oil catastrophe in U.S. history.
In addition to the growing oil slick on the surface, scientists are finding
enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as
large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet high in spots. This discovery
is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be
substantially worse than estimates given by the government and BP, formerly
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to
what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at
the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific
missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. The plumes are
depleting the oxygen dissolved in the Gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that
the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the nearby
Scientists studying video images of the gushing oil well have tentatively
calculated a flow rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. But the
government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated
a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.
When asked about this discrepancy, BP officials replied that no one could
accurately estimate oil flows from a video. However, BP has resisted entreaties
from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the
ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is
really gushing from the well.
“The answer is no to that,” BP spokesperson Tom Mueller said on May
15. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate
flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and
it might even detract from the response effort.” (!)
Calling knowledge of the oil flow “not relevant” is only the latest
in a series of measures taken by the oil giant to escape responsibility. Last
week BP asked the courts to limit its liability for the deaths of the 11 oil
workers, and many more who were injured, to $27 million. BP rang up $6 billion
in profit in just the first three months of 2010 -- almost 223 times what it
wants to pay out in damages.
A BP executive repeatedly told a congressional hearing that BP would “pay
all legitimate claims.” However, when pressed to define what
“legitimate” meant, he replied: “uh ... substantiated ... I
can’t really define the term.”
At the same hearing, CEOs from the three companies most directly involved in
the disaster — BP, TransOceanic Leasing and Halliburton — tried
desperately to shift the blame to each other.
Capitalism contradicts science
Behind the evasive maneuvers of BP and all big business lurk huge flaws in the
capitalist system itself. Establishment economists like to sing the praises of
capitalist markets, how they allegedly provide consumers with their needs and
wants efficiently based on supply and demand. According to this model,
businesses risk their capital, then organize and distribute production.
For these services the capitalists are supposed to deserve the profits
generated in production. This is the mainspring for the entire system.
Supposedly, consumers make choices and vote with their dollars: no dollars, no
According to these high priests of capitalism, anything worthwhile must have a
market price. Everything outside their system is essentially useless, since no
profit can be made from it. Grass, trees, wildlife, the oceans, mountains,
soil, even air and water are a distraction at best, a hindrance at worst
— unless someone can find a way to profit from them.
But they go even further: To a capitalist, the vast masses of people, the
workers and oppressed, are a commodity to be exploited, just like the oil
buried deep beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Anything that goes wrong in this system, according to these economists, is the
result of an “externality,” something outside the markets. Floods,
earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions are all
“externalities.” But so, too, is the destruction from wars,
industrial pollution, even economic depressions.
The capitalist system and those who operate it pretend to be hermetically
sealed against not only the rest of the natural world, but from their own
mistakes. The capitalist system exists to enable the ruling classes to make
money. If it does not make money for them, or if the masses of people rebel, or
if the planet itself becomes inhabitable, the fault lies not with the system
but with “externalities.”
Since World War II, some capitalist economists, pressured by environmental and
social justice movements, have tried to inject ideas of social responsibility
into capitalism. According to Karl William Kapp, a German-American economist,
capitalists should break out of their self-serving isolation and take on
responsibility for the social costs of their activities, especially when it
comes to environmental degradation.
According to Kapp’s model, corporations should “give back”
and be “good citizens.” They should be required to pay the true
costs of their enterprises, including the prevention and cleanup of
environmental and social disasters that they cause.
Many modern corporations, including BP, have given lip service to this idea.
Despite an atrocious safety and environmental record, BP boasted about how
“green” it was. Behind the slick ads, however, lay a grim truth.
Markets don’t just run on greed; they also operate on fear.
A life-and-death struggle
BP is the world’s largest oil company. Despite its former name, more than
50 percent of its stock is owned by U.S. banks. If one looks at the creditors
who hold its debt and finance its operations, U.S. institutions have an even
bigger role. BP, as it exists today, is the product of a merger between the
British Petroleum Company and AMOCO, the old Standard Oil of Indiana and part
of the Rockefeller oil empire. It also includes the old Atlantic Richfield
BP did not get where it is by being “socially responsible.” When it
was the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. during the 1950s, it and the CIA helped foment
the coup that replaced a progressive government in Iran with the shah.
BP’s long list of environmental and industrial accidents, for which it
received only token fines, belies the company’s rhetoric about social
Although the Barack Obama administration and many in the U.S. Congress have
delivered scathing criticisms of BP and demanded that it pay for the cleanup,
it is doubtful that, absent a determined struggle from below, there will be
much accountability. Already, the government has announced that deep-sea
drilling will continue in the Gulf. As usual, society at large — the
working class — will end up paying the costs.
In 1949, an eminent scientist, Albert Einstein, noted the contradictions
between nature and society on the one hand and big business on the other:
“Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands ... . The
result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital, the enormous
power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized
political society ... . The consequence is that the representatives of the
people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged
sections of the population.” (“Why Socialism,” Monthly
What is needed is an end to the capitalist system and its replacement with a
new system, socialism, that is based on peoples’ needs instead of
profits. Socialism cannot guarantee that there will never be natural disasters,
or even human-made ones. But socialist planning, which takes responsibility for
the entire society, represents the only hope for humanity to solve the enormous
social and environmental problems the world faces today.
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