The BP Gulf Spill Was Our Fault, and We’re Going to Do it Again

Today is the one year anniversary of the BP Gulf spill. And there are plenty of articles commemorating the beginning of the worst environmental disaster in US history — at least in environmental media circles, anyways; many mainstream publications seem to have forgotten that the spill ever occurred at all. Regardless, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the catastrophe, and that’s what I focused my coverage on over at TreeHugger. But there’s one question that has definitively been answered — and that’s who’s to blame for the accident itself.

It’s us, of course.

Sure, the various companies involved are all trying their best to divert the public rage to one another: BP says Transocean owned the rig so they were to blame, Transocean says Halliburton used faulty cement to plug the well so they’re at fault, and Halliburton and Transocean both say BP signed off on everything. But at the end of the day, it’s really all of our fault — for participating in and perpetuating a society that depends on fossil fuels to operate. And yes, some of us might not like it, and we might bring up ‘peak oil’ at the dinner table or buy hybrid cars or even cast votes in favor of clean energy policies, but a near-invisible fraction of us have seriously worked to attempt to reorganize this fossil fuel-dependent society. The truly amazing lack of outrage against the spill and apathetic acceptance of further calls to increase offshore drilling offers ample evidence of this.

Let’s be serious — it’s true that BP has an egregious safety record. But this could have happened to any one of the oil companies operating rigs in deep waters (yes, even the super-careful Norwegians). It’s the mere fact that we’ve created a market where it’s profitable for oil companies to move drilling operations where it’s extremely risky to do so that has lead to this disaster. Yes, BP is legally (and correctly) taking the blame. Yes, their blowout preventer should have been properly up to code, its response plans much more adequate. But even if the slipshod company had complied with every regulation on the books, accidents like this could still happen. And we, the everyday consumers of oil, are ultimately responsible, even if BP is technically to blame.

It’s as Slajov Zizek writes at ABC News: “The true culprit is not BP (although, to avoid any misunderstanding, BP was certainly culpable), but the demand which pushes us toward oil production irrespective of environmental concerns.”

The majority of us in industrialized nations have long since passed the point where maintaining our standard of living supersedes any concern about the environment’s well being, and as such have erected and reinforced a structure in which dangerous, environmentally destructive corporate practices are tolerated if not in outright demand (reckless practices are cheaper after all). Which is why we’re going to continue to see oil spills, deforestation, coal mine disasters, etc, no matter how strictly we make our regulations (and in the US, those regulations ain’t too strict).

Now, of course we should call for better and more ardently enforced rules — but if we’re serious about preventing serious environmental calamity, there’s going to have to be a massive, demand-side shift, towards more sustainable development and cleaner energy sources. Good thing, then, that a percolating youth movement is keyed up and ready to start orchestrating that shift. But it’s going to be a long, arduous haul. And until we get there, we should all accept our small part of the responsibility for each of these consumption-caused disasters, and bear in mind that they’re merely byproducts of the way we’re currently running our society.

I’ll start — sorry, Gulf of Mexico. The whole spill thing was kind of my fault — I’m doing my best to decarbonize, but it’ll probably be a while. So don’t be too surprised if I screw up again.

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Photo credits: US Coast Guard, IBRRC via FLickr/CC BY

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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