My friend Dean was mostly drunk rowing his raft down the Grand Canyon. He was also naked most of the time, except for a piece of climbing webbing around his waist, ostensibly to help him if the raft flipped. As he headed into the huge rapids of the Inner Gorge, Dean used to cackle and yell out: “I think I can make it!”
He was, of course, quoting Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez.
I wonder if BP’s approach to this spill is going be a hybrid of Hazelwood’s and Dean’s: hoping for the best, but knowing they are buck-naked and headed into the meat. And I wonder if that situation presents society at large an unprecedented opportunity.
The Valdez spill is close to my heart. I was in college in 1989 when I got a call from my cousin. “Auden—come up to Alaska with me. They’re paying $20/hr to clean up oil, and you can get rich in one summer!” I drove from Maine to Seattle with a friend, hopped on the ferry, and made it to Cordova in one week on a few hundred bucks. But when I arrived, Exxon had stopped paying anyone but Alaska residents to clean it up.
Just like their whole approach to the spill.
After severely damaging a vibrant fishery and one of the most beautiful places on earth, Exxon was faced with billions of dollars in fines and lawsuits. But the company knew that throwing limitless resources at the courts would be relatively cheap, and would delay any possible fine well into the future. Sure enough, after 19 years, in 2008 Exxon succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to cut the additional amount it must pay Alaskans harmed by the spill from the original $5 billion to $500 million. This is from a company that has recently banked $40B in annual profits, including some of the most profitable quarters in the history of business.
I’d submit that times have fundamentally changed since the Valdez. First, the Gulf spill could well become one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history. And second, because of the growing climate crisis and burgeoning mistrust of large, Orwellian corporate bureaucracies (see: Bank Crisis), the American public is about ready to do something radical in the history of business and economics: actually, finally, internalize externalities.
What if the spill destroys the gulf fishery, trashes coastal wetlands that are a key buffer against hurricanes, rides the Gulf stream to West Palm, and greases the whole southern East Coast? Wouldn’t that demographic—in contrast to a limited number of guides and citizens and fishermen in Prince William Sound—finally achieve the critical mass of public fury to do what we should have done long ago? We the people could bill the company in full for all the damages, blowing away insurance maximums, bankrupting the enterprise, liquidating its assets, and really sending BP on a trip “Beyond Petroleum.”
It’s a tall order to ask that our response to this spill rewrite the rules of capitalism forever. But given what’s at stake, some of which will be sacrificed—families and fishermen, businesses and tourists, heritage, history, entire economies, and even memories— maybe a solution beyond justice is the least we should demand.