Friday, June 4, 2010

BP: Beyond Pathetic (Polemic) by Giles Watson

BP: Beyond Pathetic
by Giles Watson

I am sure that many readers will be offended by this photograph. I admit that it is obscene. The image has not been tampered with in any way: I have not cut and pasted pictures of motor vehicles from some other context. These people really are buying petrol from a B.P. service station in Oxfordshire, as if nothing has happened.

Meanwhile, a further 19, 000 gallons of oil will have polluted the Gulf of Mexico throughout the course of today. Presumably, the people in this photograph are not ignorant enough to be unaware of this. Perhaps they think this grotesque act of environmental terrorism is justified in the name of economics, and they really don’t mind handing over their money, as if in vindication of the deed.

No, that wasn’t hyperbole. It is terrorism: an act of violence that intimidates the whole world. B.P. knowingly and undemocratically built an oil rig in an environmentally sensitive area, holding the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico to ransom, and it did so without due consideration of how it might respond should things go wrong. When the inevitable happened (and it is inevitable that things will go wrong with oil rigs, if you have enough of them), the corporation derided the world by cynically trying to plug the leak with golf balls and bits of old tyre. Its chief spokesman admitted that the company does not have the “tools” in its bag to deal with the spill, whilst wistfully hoping that something miraculous would happen to stop it, so that he could “have his life back”. He didn’t bomb a bus, or fly an aeroplane into the World Trade Centre, because he lacks the ideological conviction of the people who do such terrible deeds. His corporation’s form of terrorism is more indiscriminate, more impersonal, and it is inspired not by conviction, but by greed.

Perhaps the people in the photograph do not think this. Perhaps they think that capitalism is always justified in the pursuit of greater and greater profits, no matter what the human and animal cost. If this is the reason they are still buying from B.P., I have no further argument with them: they are simply monsters, and I cannot expect to understand them.

More likely, I suspect, they have just not thought about it. They probably didn’t even notice the B.P. insignia as they drove in: it’s just another service station. But is it not a source of shame to them that the biggest environmental disaster in history is presided over by a company of British origin, even as they fly St. George’s cross from their wing mirrors in anticipation of the World Cup? Don’t they feel a rising bilge of horror as they hand over their cash payment for the filthy stuff they have just poured into their vehicles? Is there not even a twinge of conscience?

They might feel differently if they had ever handled an oiled seabird. I have done so, and can affirm that crude oil is the stuff of nightmares. You put on rubber gloves, and robe yourself in plastic in order to avoid being smeared with the noxious stuff yourself: it dissolves cell membranes and causes mutation and cancer. Wearing the gloves makes the bird twice as slippery in your hands as it telescopes its neck to look at you, its agonized eyes bulging from its sleekly blackened skull. The webbed feet flail madly, then weaken. The stench nauseates you. The oil clogs the bird’s nostrils, and every feather is welded to the next, plastered with black clag. The feathers must be washed and rinsed individually, and the gunk never quite disappears. After the hideous process is over, the bird’s chances of release remain minimal. In all likelihood, it has swallowed some oil, and will die, spewing the stuff from both ends. If not, it will take months for the feathers to regain their natural waterproofing – achieved when the bird preens after touching its beak to the uropygial gland at the base of its tail – and if it were left afloat on the ocean, it would simply sink and drown, or die of hypothermia. To handle one such case is heartbreaking. Imagine how many birds are affected, at 19, 000 gallons a day.

That is only the beginning. The Gulf of Mexico is home to twenty-eight species of marine mammal including the manatee, three species of dolphin and six species of endangered whale. It has five species of threatened or endangered sea turtle, innumerable species of fish including the endangered smalltooth sawfish, threatened staghorn and elkhorn corals, and myriad marine invertebrates that form the base of the food chain. At the top of this food chain, human beings are also suffering, although some (people whose livelihood lies in the Gulf itself) are more worthy of compassion than others (B.P. shareholders, for example).

Perhaps people will recognise their own vehicle registration plates in this picture. Probably, they will try to justify their actions: “This could have happened to any oil company; they are all as dirty as each other, but I have to get to work.” By privatizing public transport, and allowing market forces to erode it so that services are only offered where they are profitable, our governments are partly to blame for our private oil consumption. But the fight has to start somewhere, it has to start soon, and it must start with us, not with cynical governments or avaricious corporations. A world is at stake, and arguments from economics will not even cut the scum on the surface. Let the big corporations destroy the environment completely, and there won’t be any economics at all.

There is only one morally acceptable thing for us to do: boycott B.P. until it begins to atone for its actions. And it can only do that by ceasing to operate as a profit-making company, pouring all its resources into cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, and offering what succour it can to those creatures it has assailed. Any money that remains at the end of this process must go towards setting up fully nationalized factories devoted to building affordable cars which run on ethanol. This would create jobs, prevent wars, atone for the oil industry’s sins against the environment, and help to ensure that B.P. does not go down in history as an international pariah.

In the meantime, driver of a black VW, registration number V008 VVB, put your car into reverse, drive out onto the A420, and get your petrol from the service station just down the road. They might be just another cancerous corporation, but they are not currently fiddling with golf balls and wanting their lives back whilst the ocean fills with oil. Your protest will be miniscule and imperfect, but it has to be better than stooping this low.

Author bio:

Giles has been writing poetry and taking photographs for as long as he can remember, but more recently began painting and drawing in order to illustrate his own work. Giles also writes prose essays on natural history and mediaeval visual culture, is an avid walker and amateur naturalist, and has a keen interest in theatre. He has taught English, History, Drama, Sociology and Film. He is currently working on the libretto for a musical of his own. His photography can be viewed at his Flickr stream.

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