An Oil-Spill as a Systemic Question Ruthless Criticism

A Threatened Way of Life – or:

An Oil-Spill as a Systemic Question

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: 3-10, Munich]

In the Gulf of Mexico, the oil-rig 'Deep-water Horizon' exploded. For months, huge amounts of oil were flowing out of the borehole into the sea, reaching the American coasts, and have in several states ruined the environment and with it the livelihoods of huge parts of the population. According to experts, this is the biggest environmental catastrophe in America's history – and in view of this occasion, the country's President, in his Address to the Nation, makes everybody aware of the meaning of what is happening on the Gulf coast.

“As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges.  At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American.  Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists.  And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.” (All quotations taken from Obama's Address to the Nation, June 15, 2010)

When the American President sees a similarity between his nation entangled in a battle against an oil slick and the fight it has taken on to restore its financial and economic power from the harm done to it by the crisis, a fight being on the same level as the one it has been waging for years in order to eliminate its enemies, then one thing is certain: the man really blows his own trumpet. All the same, it would be unwise to brush his overacting aside as mere rhetorical emotionalism. After all, the leader of a nation familiarizes his countrymen with the official view of things, that is to say, with the respect they are expected to show vis-à-vis the disaster in the Gulf. And when he classifies it as one of the worst-case national scenarios “challenging” the nation, then this reveals one thing: for him, the harm done by the oil far exceeds what has to be registered in damage by the coasts and the citizens, the fishing industry and tourism – in the President's view, the nation by and large is essentially threatened by the oil pollution in the Gulf. Hence the tackling of the challenge that Obama has in mind takes its measure in anything else but in restoring the basis of life that is endangered by this accident. Rather, this requires that America comprehends and politically heeds the lessons that, in the President's opinion, can be taken from the latest stroke of fate – first Bin Laden, then the crisis.

Lesson number 1: Clouds of crude in the Gulf – a “most painful and powerful reminder” for a “change” in energy policy

The President opens a one-sided discourse with his people by reverting to the tried and tested patterns according to which, whenever there are minor or major catastrophes happening in capitalism, the administration in office sees itself called upon, of course, to prevent such unwelcome incidents in the future. Since it, after all, is the authority that permits all sorts of entrepreneurial risk-taking in the lucrative oil business, the regulations under which it does so are certainly expected to be of a sort that business will take place free from interference:

“So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.”

Having crossed off the promise that everything will soon run smoothly when drilling in seabeds, the President nonetheless has to warn his people against nurturing false hopes for security. Security standards and their enforcement or not, America will, in the future as well, have to live with all the risks that the oil companies just have to take for profitably exploiting the desired raw material deep under the seabed. For their ambitious plans, they only follow the self-evident need in a market-economy to close a gap in supply, resulting on its part from the circumstance that the country consumes more oil than it has lying around at home.

“But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource.  We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean – because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.”

The lesson that the President draws from the burst borehole turns out to be indeed rather comprehensive. According to him, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico not at all only shows the risk that the companies encounter and that could be tackled by “better regulations.” Regulations are definitely needed, but they will not eliminate endangering situations of actually obvious dimensions, simply because they are nowhere close to the risk that the nation has created for itself with its consumption of these “finite resources.” Since the country in its consumption of the raw material neither adapts to its finiteness nor to the difficulties in extracting it, the oil companies encounter unavoidable risks in trying to satisfy the country's continuously growing need – in the name of the nation that is paying the price in the form of the oil-spill.

Obama, however, wouldn't even have needed the catastrophe in order to take his 'lesson' from it. What can be learned from it is something he has known forever and now explicitly blames his predecessor-administrations for:

“For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”

The oil drilling disaster stands for the disaster that the nation is still addicted to fossil fuels, showing in its awful consequences the neglect of duties by all his predecessors, which is far worse in that they have not weaned the country from its dependence. In the incumbent President's view, they lacked the backbone for that, which he of course doesn't. Instead of preparing the “path forward” for the nation, they did what they always do in the lobbies, thereby committing the nation's weal and woe to the oil-companies' private interests. The consequences of this irresponsibility with the highest authority are so fatal that they reach from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to China, to the Middle East and once again back to America's Holiest of Holies:

“The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America.  Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

In its narrow-minded and irresponsible fixation on the energy source oil, the leading world- and world economic power has maneuvered itself into the shadows in its President's eyes. He has heard something about a highly promising future market in alternative energies, and certainly takes it for granted that of course his country will have to strategically occupy and prepare it as a means for its own business practices – and what must he see? Of all rivals, it is the one that is already too powerful anyway on the opposite coast of the Pacific that is grabbing this market, building up industries that actually belong to America! As concerns the rest of the world which America trades with, a trade whose balance results in a deficit on its account, there are some more “foreign countries” that, on this occasion, make a very bad impression on the President. In itself, that is perfectly clear to him, the nation's money is anyway only there to make America's power and wealth grow – and who is really feathering his nest with it? It is paid away to others who are gorging themselves from America's dependence on the oil that lies buried on their territory. And hardly has the nation created a makeshift, trying to free itself at least a bit from the access to its wealth that sheiks and other parasites serve themselves to, when the oil film swimming in the Gulf makes it once again obvious to its President that the nation doesn't have its vital basis of life under control. Here he sees nothing less at stake than the 'way of life' so typical for America – the ensemble of all tried and tested morals and customs that have turned capitalism made in the USA into the world's leading power.

In this way, Obama stylizes the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf into the manifestation of a general catastrophe of the nation. He dramatizes his predecessors' sins of omission in the fight for the energy market of the future into treason, taking all not yet born generations under his wings – “we cannot consign our children to this future” – in order to make it more than obvious to his countrymen how unconditionally they can at any rate trust him. The future after all must change, and so its does – even now, under the leadership of its President.

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

As every tragedy has its catharsis, so does every nation's departure from hard times have a bright mission and a leader who promises to lead it to success on all fronts in their battles.

Lesson Number 2: The crisis of an “entire way of life” - an order for “change” in political responsibility

The man has been there himself, so he knows what he's talking about:

“You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water.  That living is now in jeopardy... The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. It’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost...”

For the President, third and fifth generation shrimp fisherman and oyster gatherers are one thing in particular: the typical local edition of the shining light that honestly fights as a hard-working American against others for his success, caring for himself, getting over each defeat and executing together with others, who do the same with their means, the principle of life that has made America great. For the commander of this country, they are such a big delight that he wants to have their economic damage immediately understood as a case of a much more general menace to the entire country: the impending loss of the genuine American way of life. In order to save it, the President is already on his way, and of course right at the spot from where, in his opinion, the threat emerged.

“One place we’ve already begun to take action is at the agency in charge of regulating drilling and issuing permits, known as the Minerals Management Service. Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility – a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves ...But it’s now clear that the problem there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow. And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency... And his charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog – not its partner.”

Allegedly, a culture of irresponsibility has infected the control of the oil business. An administration, “hostile to government,” is said to have breached its official duties, to have in essence only administered its own non-regulation, and to have at any rate let the sovereign definition of business regulations out of its hands – which, as one can see now, is urgently needed so that every “hard-working fisherman” can care for himself under fair conditions, so that the American way of life can unfold freely, and it is made clear even in big business that everything that is good for BP and all the other big conglomerates is also really good for America!

So the President is stylizing himself the fisherman's friend, the savior of his way of life and that of all other good Americans – and in this way at the same time a determined fighter against all those on the other side who will once again accuse him of left-wing control mania, un-American business-damaging behavior and blame him for the crisis that he would only allegedly combat. Obama's critique of them is that they would make themselves henchmen of private interests instead of providing reasonable rules for competition, in which both sides, the private interests and the nation, get their money's worth. Anyone, so Obama says, who denies this common sense subscribes to a “failed philosophy” that endangers America's successful departure into the future and threatens to undermine its sound civil society right now by collaborating with big business.

If, however, the material core of the puffed-up production of the accident in the Gulf and its wide-ranging interpretation by the head of the nation is taken note of, it is at least clear what all that does not mean. In no way does the President turn the golden rule upside down according to which the state fares best when releasing the private interests of its citizens into competition for their success and restricts itself to the principle, when controlling them, that competition has to be fair; intimate cooperation between big business and politicians is expected to foster the nation's success in the future as well. In the case of BP, he is bothered about a governmental administration that apparently did not execute its control – had it done so, nothing would have gone wrong with the drilling in the Gulf. This is why the head of the nation wants to ensure more control for all the enterprises that are imperative for a – after all still necessary – successful drilling for oil. But why is it that – for this and for announcing a new energy policy – the man had to have such a big mouth?

Lesson number 3: Yes we can!

Perhaps he can't help it. But the big talk of a national fateful decision in the question of energy on the occasion of the oil accident, the exaggerating generalizations of its causes, for instance, of a false philosophy of governance: this seems to be called for by the head of the world power with regard to the state of his nation. His theatrics are anything other than an unfounded exaggeration, but stand for the political view of things in the White House, and in this point, the state of the union obviously causes discontent among its actual leaders. They consider the state of the global energy competition not to be beneficial for America's wealth and might. Apart from their rhetorical elevations, these considerations concern the material conditions of America's status as a world power, which is why the President regards it as appropriate to put up the most severe calibers of nationalist agitation. When he simultaneously tries to get support for his energy policy, to ward off the congenial fundamentalist attacks of the opposition, and to prepare the masses for the costs and victims that will be demanded by the way out of the economic crisis and by future success in the competition for world power; when he therefore once again announces a new “mission” of the nation: then there is simply nothing else demanded but abstract confidence and – this is also typical for America – indestructible trust in the community's tradition of success. Obama is a specialist for that:

“Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition.  Only if we seize the moment.  And only if we rally together and act as one nation – workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors....”

The blow for freedom with which Obama seeks to help his nation back to the role of the globally leading economic power is reckoned to unfold the grandest possible moral force: the blow is not only urgently due – it is also possible! It only has to be tackled swiftly. Now immediately and – this is the main thing – together with everybody else. America will soon have millions of more jobs as a consequence and the world market for clean energy in its hands. Dreaming big dreams and having iron confidence in their coming true – this after all also belongs to the enduring tradition of the American way of life, which Mr Yeswecan wants to help to a new international standing.

“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny – our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there...”

This nation manages simply every challenge with which fate encumbers it, and actually only because it has resolved to do so with determination. For that, it does not even have to exactly know what it is that it manages; nor does it have to know how to deal with it, and even less so, who will have what from the result when it has managed it. When America's pioneers say 'go west!', America will simply be there sooner or later. When this nation wants to win a war, it builds lots of tanks and wins it. And, as already the landing on the moon only rewarded the determination of this nation, because simply any of its exertions have always guaranteed the success it has envisaged, so it is in this case. When God's own country adjusts to clean energy, the world market will belong to it tomorrow.

This is the way the President tries to gather his people behind him for the national departure he considers due. His opponents mobilize it conversely for the nation's departure in depicting the undoing that this way will mean for America and everything that this glorious nation represents. The latter splits over that into two camps, which agree in principle on one point: for anybody whose concern is America's success, its actual state is intolerable.