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Lesson #1 of BP oil spill: Capitalism can’t protect the environment

May 20, 2010

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 British Petroleum.

“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 sea life.

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 votes.

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 (ARCO).

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 responsibility.

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 Review, 1949)

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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UPDATED May 22, 2010 4:47 PM
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