Obama cleans up

There is a high price to pay for so-called progress. Who should pay it? Those directly responsible says President Obama, pointing the finger of blame with one hand at BP whilst holding out the other hand for compensation.

However, when we look at the damage caused by banks and the financial drilling into our limited reserves, we see that although the blame is apportioned to banks, the rest of us foot the bill.

What gets left to one side is the pressure that we collectively bring to bear on the activities that result in catastrophe: it was greed and selfishness that contributed to our financial mess with its gush of crude lending and it is our huge demand for oil that has contributed to the riskier and riskier search for deposits of black gold.

So, if we are all expected to pay for the results of the banking crisis, maybe an element of collective responsibility needs to be shown over this latest oil crisis. Governments as well as companies need to have funds set aside to meet the costs of catastrophe. Pursuing BP to the limit might foot some of the bill, but ultimately, if we fail to address our behaviour and demands, all that will happen is that companies will become more and more risk averse. What corporate ‘catastrophobes’ will dare drill for oil in the future unless we can evolve a fair approach to dealing with the risk/reward/cost equations?

To an extent, we are doing this in the financial world. The same needs to apply in other sectors too.

(I started thinking about this blog, by looking at who else President Obama could target by using his BP benchmark: what about Japan for its whaling activities and damage to sea-life in general; China for its dumping on us all of plastic waste (toys to you and me); in passing he could sue Chinese herbalists for the extinction of rhinos – butchered for the powdered rhino horn; the Ford descendants for the damage that the mass production of the motor car has caused in the world; chewing gum firms for damages to pavements (in passing giving a Congressional Medal to Singapore for banning the stuff); Sir Frank Whittle’s heirs for the damage the jet engine has done to the environment; drug barons for turning swathes of society into an underclass of misfits; religious leaders for causing so much conflict; Simon Cowell for the effect that his oily slickness has had… etc.)

Companies must be ethical. They must be responsible. They must pay for mistakes. However, we need risk takers to meet the challenges faced by this overpopulated world with its scarce resources. Politicians will have to recognise this and the BP fiasco demonstrates how the simplistic Obama approach misses the point that we are all ultimately the payers (whether in financial or environmental terms) and must bear some collective responsibility for what has and will happen as a result of legitimate business activities. Individual firms cannot alone meet the costs of ‘progress’.

Published on Jun 16, 2010 by Neil Thomas