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The oil spill is not Ken Salazar’s or Barack Obama’s fault 2010-May-30 at 14:25 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
Tags: , , , ,

Time for Salazar to go?, by Mark Hertsgaard, 27-May-2010

No, it’s not.  And this accident is not the President’s fault.  And there’s nothing he could have done to prevent it.  And there’s nothing the government could have done to stop the flow of oil by now.  This is an unprecedented disaster — one mile below sea level — and there is no known technology to deal with it, so engineers are inventing solutions right now.  It sucks, but that’s the situation.  BP and Halliburton screwed up in terms of building the well, they didn’t have the kind of mission-critical safeguards they should have had, and it led to a total systems failure.  My only complaint here is in terms of BP’s own processes to ensure that this kind of failure would never, ever, ever happen, which just weren’t nearly good enough.

And the only way that government regulators ever learn about these kinds of problems is in a reactive way, through some sort of systems failure.  It seems to me that those who think otherwise are unfamiliar with culture and structure in large organizations.  The bad hand we all got dealt is that, in this case, the level of failure that regulators could learn from wasn’t much smaller.  With a partial failure, for instance, we would have been able to change the inspection regime to make sure that something this big would never happen.  Unfortunately, the first failure was the biggest possible one.

We’ve seen this movie before with Obama. When Wall Street nearly crashed the global economy, Obama responded by listening to advisers—notably chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—whose sympathies lay with the megabanks that gamed the system rather than with the ordinary Americans who paid the price in the form of unemployment slips and foreclosure notices. The bailout plan Obama ended up backing was a great deal for Wall Street, a terrible deal for Main Street. What’s more, the president allowed himself to be seen during the bank bailout drama as taking the side of the villains rather than the victims—a damaging and unnecessary political choice.

Now, Obama is in danger of making the same mistake with the BP oil disaster. Substitute Salazar for Geithner, substitute continued offshore oil drilling after the worst environmental disaster in history for continued lax banking regulation after the worst financial breakdown in decades, and the parallel is complete. In his final remark of the press conference, Obama drew the parallel himself, saying, “As in the financial markets, when big crises happen, it forces us to do some soul-searching.” Obama signaled today he wants to look tough on BP and demand exemplary behavior from the oil industry in general. But credibly standing up to Big Oil is difficult when your administration’s point man on the issue has long been the industry’s chief cheerleader and shows few signs of changing his views. If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America’s transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar’s resignation.

The parallels being drawn in these last two paragraphs between the financial crisis and this crisis are so distorted as to be laughable.  The assumptions are silly, and then the comparisons made between those silly assumptions and this situation stretch credulity.  Calling Salazar “the [oil] industry’s biggest cheerleader”? C’mon.

No one is happy about this, and this kind of knee-jerk search for the guilty is what I’d expect from both the extreme left- and right-wing publications (such as The Nation), but a moderate point of view allows us calmly to realize that we’re just in uncharted territory here, and we’re making it up as we go.

Is this a wake-up call about alternative energy sources?  I mean, sure, whatever.  There was already enough profit motive behind moving to renewable energy (particularly solar) before this incident to have it developing as quickly as it could.  It won’t come any sooner after this than it otherwise would have.  It’s not about government investment in it, it’s about private investment and research, and it’s coming right on time, and much faster than most people realize.

President Obama loses exactly none of my support around this issue.  He’s as frustrated and pissed as all of us are.  If there was a reasonable solution that involved using the U.S. Navy Submarine fleet, or divers, or sinking a decommissioned ship over the hole, or detonating a mine down there, or anything that the military could do, it would have been done already.  There’s nothing more that he can personally do… it’s up to the experts and the engineers now.  And they’re doing everything they can think of.



1. Chris Fowler - 2010-May-30 at 14:49 PDT

Yes. This is an unprecedented disaster. It will also lead to a string of completely unprecedented ecological, economic, sociological and cultural consequences unfolding into the distant future. This is only the tip of the iceberg… and the initial problem is still getting bigger.
I suspect one thing we will learn from this is just how interconnected and interdependent we are, together, on systems we don’t normally name, or even look at. A new world outlook is starting to emerge… even if not by our choice.

2. madbluewings - 2010-May-30 at 15:52 PDT

Hi Scott,

Thanks for taking the time to write this. I think we pretty consistently represent divergent perspectives on such matters, but I appreciate the opportunity to consider your views and play with the dialectic.

I’m not pointing the finger at Salazar or Obama. Certainly the blame does not lie with them. But the responsibility to step up does. The blame to a great extent lies in the arrogance that allows us to continuously and egregiously employ technologies without sufficient scientific consensus that said technology is not harmful to the public or the environment. The way we operate now, the burden of proof lies with those who claim the possibility of harm, not with those who advocate the use of the technology. Ass backwards, in my humble opinion!

And when a certain technology does prove to be harmful, even as in this case, catastrophically so, we act as if the fault lies in poor practices, faulty equipment, and negligence, and we look for who’s to blame. Our inherent approach is to blame (in both senses of the phrase). We lack humility and respect for wholeness and interdependency of systems, we lack wisdom, we lack a dignified sense of ourselves as embedded in the whole and indivisible from and answerable to its laws.

My problem with Salazar is his advocacy of offshore drilling and his overall disdain for the Precautionary Principle. I want a wiser person to occupy his position.


3. madbluewings - 2010-May-30 at 16:13 PDT

Also, I think there is more Obama can do. He can open himself to feel the full impact of the situation not just as a president but as a father, as a visionary human being, as a man embedded in a deeply dysfunctional system and sometimes short-sighted in accordance with its operative assumptions, and allow his perspectives to evolve yet deeper, to accommodate more of the truth. I imagine that this may be happening… and I certainly trust that he is capable of it.

And then, he can fire those in the administration who do not demonstrate the flexibility of mind and vision to experience big shifts in perspective and the willingness to act and create policy in alignment with those deeper perspectives, and he can find and appoint leaders who do.

There’s plenty more that he and all of us can do.

Scott Arbeit - 2010-May-30 at 17:09 PDT

I’ve never specifically looked at the Precautionary Principle before, although it probably counts as common sense in many ways. Thanks for the reference… I just read the entire Wikipedia article.

First reaction: in the “Application” section of the article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle#Application) I see four basic versions or interpretations of it that are commonly in use. I’d say that the idea of drilling for oil underwater, given a high level of competence in doing so, is consistent with #2 and #3. #1 seems to have a rather elastic interpretive structure, and #4 is clearly the extreme, or “no-regrets” approach. In other words… one could argue that we have been operating under the Precautionary Principle already w/r/t underwater oil drilling. We certainly haven’t been employing the “no-regrets” version, but we’ve had a regulatory regime in place that’s worked, up until now, to keep things safe enough, but not too safe to prevent a reality TV show about how difficult oil drilling is (“Black Gold”). Right balance? Well… that’s up to each of us to decide.

For instance, drilling for oil underwater has never had an incident like this ever happen, so, over the course of many years and billions of barrels of oil, it’s been safe enough to do until this incident. That passes my reasonableness test.

Also, for this failure to happen, multiple individual system failures had to coincide (see my earlier post http://futureofintegral.com/2010/05/27/the-smoking-gun-on-bp/) in just such a way as to allow this to happen. The circumstances for that to happen should never have been allowed to exist in the first place… so, yes, I absolutely am treating this as a process failure, and not as an indication that we, as humans, have exceeded our capacity for dealing with complex systems by allowing oil drilling in the first place. Again, we’ve been doing this safely for a long time. This definitely means that I want to see a much tougher regulatory and inspection regime put in place around oil rigs… but I still see that as a sufficient measure to allow it.

(This, incidentally, applies directly to nuclear power as well, right? I don’t want to get sidetracked, but we can think about nuclear in the same sort of “potential environmental disaster” way that we look at underwater oil drilling.)

That oil is deeply embedded in out LR structures, LL cultures, and UR technologies today is obvious… and, again, I believe we’ll see significant shifts away from that within two decades. It will not happen overnight, and we won’t be completely done using oil in two decades, but we’ll start to see the shift away from oil as solar becomes more and more affordable in about a decade, and then we’ll see no new infrastructure built that requires oil or coal starting in about two decades, with older infrastructure upgraded or replaced in the decades following. This would imply a peak oil and coal usage somewhere around 2020, declining every year after that… and if you knew that could be true, wouldn’t you sign up for it right now?

So… oil is not here to stay, but for the time being it remains absolutely crucial to the growth of economies and the spread of globalization, which is, in turn, absolutely crucial for lifting three to four billion people out of abject poverty, into a functioning middle class, in the next forty years. For that reason alone — compassion for those in the worst and most grinding poverty, and hope for them and their children that they’ll see a better quality of life — I cannot make any blanket statements about turning off underwater oil rigs right now. Since I’m as sure as I can be that solar is going to replace it anyway, and soon, the window for risk — given that we will have a new global rule set for oil rig safety coming out of this — is shrinking year after year, starting now.

I am — consciously — privileging the context of “globalization leads to lasting peace and a better quality of life for everyone” over “environmental disasters can happen when we do difficult things”. I’m not ignoring those risks, and I’m in no way ignoring the tragic consequences in the Gulf of Mexico, consequences that I barely understand so far, and that will be felt for a long time to come. But I’m still choosing the compassion and hope of globalization, in conjunction with the exponential growth curve that solar and battery power already have shown, over environmental concerns. That’s just where I come out on it… it’s entirely reasonable that one could disagree, and I deeply respect a different weighing of the complex contexts involved.

I haven’t yet had much of a deep think about the LR and LL changes we might expect from this crisis — the opportunity that accompanies the crisis — beyond the obvious regulatory and inspection changes. I think Integral has an incredible opportunity to be part of the conversation around what those changes might be, but I’ll still argue that there are more contexts to keep in mind than simply protecting the environment, just in case something bad happens.

With all of that said… I agree on the second part. Obama can open himself to this tragedy even more, expect others to be able to do so, and make the personnel changes required to see that people of a sufficient level of perspective-taking are empowered to oversee things. I think it’s probably too early to know who those people are yet. Once we get past this initial crisis of stopping the flow, so we can turn our attention to the environmental impact… we’ll see what shakes out. It is my hope that President Obama will do exactly as you suggest, and I’ll clearly register my disappointment if he doesn’t. But I’m giving time for the process to play out.

Thanks for making me feel more, and think more, about this. :-)

4. sasoc - 2010-May-30 at 16:55 PDT

Not so fast.

It is a failure of leadership. Not a failure to prevent it. Not even a failure to fix it. It is a failure to lead in a time of crisis, and the failure to come down off of Mount Arrogance and take an interest.

Bush and Obama are brothers in arms on this – they both exhibit an aloofness, a lack of interest, a certain kind of “not my problem”.

5. Chris Fowler - 2010-May-30 at 18:02 PDT

I would be curious to have you further articulate what ‘…taking an interest’, and ‘leading in a time of crisis’ might look like, on the part of Obama, in this situation. I’ve heard of him visiting the site. I’ve heard of him talking and consulting with the principals on all sides. I don’t think establishing new inquiry boards and investigations is exactly needed right now… unless they are focused on solutions… but what WOULD more effective leadership look like, for you?
Surely seeing that more oil barriers are actually delivered to the point of need… despite political barriers… should be done. Having these available, but sitting on shore, is unacceptable. Seeing that all the facts are on the table accurately is needed… at least those related to the immediate solutions. Leave the blame for later. Getting clear on proliferating economic consequences, and supporting where needed, is needed… I’m interested in hearing more from you…

6. madbluewings - 2010-Jun-04 at 07:44 PDT

Hi Scott,

What I realize while reading your thoughtful post is that perhaps our disagreement roots in differing perspectives on what “a long time” means. I’ll admit, with regard to technology, in general I am deeply conservative; not a Luddite in my own view, but given to the belief that it is a deep time perspective that we must consult and embody. This, along with the other perspectives we entertain — those that are more germane to the short-view that tends to characterize the modern and post-modern outlook. And I would argue that the deep time perspective ought to be given much weight.

The way I see it, we are embedded in the pathology of an incorrect worldview that recognizes neither our integrality with this “thing” we call nature nor the grave error we commit in having lost (or never attained) the perspectives of deep time.

I appreciate the clarity of this statement of yours:
“I am — consciously — privileging the context of ‘globalization leads to lasting peace and a better quality of life for everyone’ over ‘environmental disasters can happen when we do difficult things’. I’m not ignoring those risks, and I’m in no way ignoring the tragic consequences in the Gulf of Mexico, consequences that I barely understand so far, and that will be felt for a long time to come. But I’m still choosing the compassion and hope of globalization, in conjunction with the exponential growth curve that solar and battery power already have shown, over environmental concerns.”

I think what I am saying is that this privileging of any view over the necessity of respecting and caring for the wholeness (which includes but is not limited to respecting and caring for “the environment”, as the wholeness is an AQAL affair) is in itself not only disastrous in effect, but reflective of an imbalance in values and view that is not in alignment with deep truth, and as such, is unsustainable in the deepest sense. I don’t believe I can back this up with argument. It is an intuitive perception and/or a deep sense, thus is subject to the distortions of my own potentially ill-conceived views and biases and the obscuration of my blind-spots, and I too hold much respect for “a different weighing of the complex contexts involved.” And at the same time, there is something in my deep sense that I trust profoundly, and so I feel moved to bring to the conversation my somewhat inarticulate translations of this perception of fundamental imbalance.

Thank you again for challenging me deeply, and helping me to expand and integrate my views.

Much respect,

7. madbluewings - 2010-Jun-04 at 08:06 PDT

I am so often awed and moved by the intelligence and beauty of the totality, of nature and kosmos, and I do not leave human intelligence and beauty out of that equation and am often moved deeply by its expression through humanity.

But it strikes me that in so many ways, we usually express a beautiful (or horrific) particularity or partiality. I so often feel humbled in the face of my perceptions of the wholeness, inadequate as they may be. I feel such power in that sense of humility. Ironic as it may sound, I feel that is where our true power lies. It is through this experience that I sense that to thrive, we must be guided by submitting ourselves to the wholeness. As a primary practice. As an antidote to our inherent blindness to our blindnesses.

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