Eight months after the oil disaster of last April 20th the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, focused on yielding clarity to murky waters of the BP nightmare, has released its report.
“The well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined to overwhelm the safeguards meant to prevent just such an event from happening. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo [well site] can be traced back to a single overarching failure—a failure of management. Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them. A blowout in deepwater was not a statistical inevitability.”
What if they did evaluate the risk and failure, and statistical inevitability was factored into the potential profits – what then? “The question is, What will we learn from it?”
Where do we go from here?
Unfortunately the Commission’s report doesn’t assess motivations, “Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean made that increased the risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and money).”
Maybe that should be Commission Part II: Understanding Motivations. Perhaps it is time we assess motivations. Perhaps it is time to consider corporations under a lens of conscious decision-making, “Whether purposeful” decisions are being made. For if this is not the time then when?
When do we face the harsh reality that the corporations we create are not fundamentally ethical? Not because they are peopled by unethical individuals, but they themselves are outside ethics. We don’t ask our iPads to be ethical – only the users. We consistently call on corporations to be more ethical, act more ethically, think about consequence of their actions, as if they can. Corporations are designed for one purpose – make/increase profit. That’s not bad – it just is. We don’t ask our cars to quit polluting or running over people – just run. It’s up to us to have good sense (ethics) enough to not operate the machine without training, practice or when intoxicated – at least in public. So why not ask the same of the other machines we create – a corporation.
Corporations are by definition machines designed to assemble profit at all cost, which in turn is the least cost. When the report criticized the corporate trio in that their actions “clearly saved those companies significant time (and money).”, it was like criticizing our refrigerators for using electricity and keeping food cold. BP, Halliburton and Transocean were only doing what they were created to do – make money at the least possible cost.
Certainly individuals can have ethics, Ben & Jerry applied some of their’s to a company making ice cream, but without exception corporation are designed around self-preservation once they reach BP-size – translation, more profits. Last summer when Tony Hayward screwed up too much, the corporation replaced his part with another, Robert Dudley as new BP Chief Executive Officer, and the machine kept running, churning profits, doing what it was created to do. No one fires the corporation. In fact, like Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL, I would bet the corporation would prevent that.
BP is no different from any other faceless-multinational-pan-global-mega-corporation – they just made this big a disaster first – a bigger one is in the pipeline – oil or otherwise. None of this is stated in anger or rage at BP or any corporation. Yes, I get horribly frustrated when I work in the Gulf and see this disaster play itself out in the environment and the lives of people and wildlife damaged and destroyed. But I’m over corporate blame. If anything my frustration might be growing in the persistent lack of reality in which we, human beings, immerse ourselves. (My earlier thoughts on Gross Negligence.) Large nonprofits are a prime example.
A close look at any of the large nonprofits (mediums and small are not PR important enough to most mega-corporations) and you will see corporate PR strategy deals – a couple hundred thousand to this project, few million given over there, and afterwards, each time the nonprofit group presses the public with the fact that by working with business ‘we are making steps forward.’ Each time we hear the less-bad anecdote that accompanies the deposit slip – ‘XYZ corporation is better because they are working with us’, or ‘the environment would be worse off if we didn’t have these partnerships.’
In ancient times battle strategies were practiced and refined. Over two thousand years ago the Chinese general and military strategist Sun-Tzu said, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Machiavelli in his The Art of War commands that a Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, because of this, become weaker.
Did anyone ever ask the tandem questions: Why do these corporations give the nonprofits their dollars? And divide them so sharingly among the big groups?
Imagine if all the largest environmental/conservation/social good organizations pooled resources, time and energy, in other words they too had flush coffers – say, like BP’s annual profits. What if nonprofits acted like the corporations they were initially set up to be – focused on their bottom line, their profit, the conserving and protecting life on Earth. And what if they pursued that goal with the same mechanical unemotional determination. Would their strategies, their criticisms, their partnerships change? Would their rhetoric change? There certainly would be no partnerships with oil, gas, coal or the chemical industry. There clearly would be a firm stand against over-population. And politicians would definitively walk the talk.
Much of my world is squarely planted in the environmental nonprofit community – officially and unofficially. I roam outside that box as much as possible – it’s valuable for perspective and critical to understanding how to do my job – telling the stories of the world. For decades there has been this battering of heads against the corporate gate by those of us inside the box, in some vain attempt to change the direction they are headed. After much thought I think it’s a failed philosophy. It is based and strategized on an impossibility: corporate ethics.
Until we understand that one simple truth we are doomed to fail.
I understand why we may think corporations are somehow like us, humans, after all even our highest court (in the USA) acknowledged their existence: In 1886, in the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are ‘persons’ and therefore entitled to rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. HAL has been gaining ground, rights and unfettered acceptance, ever since.
Ultimately some machines need to be dismantled, unplugged, parted out – dehumanized. In a previous blog posting I asked the question should BP be dismantled? When a creation runs so amuck as BP did should it not be taken over and all the parts sold off. Corporation have no inalienable right to exist – we made that rule up, we can change it.
“The nation suffered a colossal disaster with the oil spill,” said Frances Beinecke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the spill commission, speaking to TIME, then he pondered, “The question is, What will we learn from it?”
Other thoughts worth considering: