please note that my reference to Siegel's post is specifically designed to use the entire conversation as a starting point for a discussion of the media aspects of the environmental community's response to the gulf disaster. So as to make sure that nobody's position is in any way mischaracterized, I fully encourage everyone to fully read the post, which is excellent introductory material to the point I am attempting to make in this essay.
A Siegel's recent piece on the oil disaster on the gulf and its failure to move messaging on energy issues is definitely worth a look if you missed it. In the diary, Siegel took David Waldman ever-so-slightly to task for quoting a Washington Post article that seemed to indicate that the oil disaster in the gulf is not driving action on green energy issues in the way that environmental groups had hoped.
To recap briefly, Siegel far preferred the following clip from a a piece at Wonkroom:
To get from the BP disaster to comprehensive climate legislation requires not just an understanding of the catastrophic risks of fossil fuels, but also a belief in the need for a strong, decisive government that protects its citizens. Without public desire for government to regulate the failures of the free market, there can never be an effective campaign to move Congress to action. In April, on the eve of the oil disaster, tea-party anti-government ideology had reached a fever pitch, with nearly a third of the American public who believed that "government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in." ... Obama needs to prove to the American public that government can work in times of crisis — starting with the BP disaster.
President Obama can’t pass comprehensive green economy legislation on his own — the U.S. Senate must break from the shackles of industry inaction. However, he can restore confidence in the government of the United States by taking on the sins of toxic polluters, starting with BP and the Gulf Coast. If his administration can prove itself in this crisis, the American people will trust his leadership on the path to a cleaner future.
That sounds good in theory. But if the Washington Post's premonitions turn out to be correct, it will be posts like those found at WonkRoom that will be a large part of the reason why. This may seem like a hypocritical charge in the wake of what I have written previously about how the oil calamity in the gulf represents an abject failure of the free market, so it's worth a little bit of an explanation.
From a theoretical point of view, the jury is still out on whether the BP catastrophe is a free market failure or not. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, a "free market in space" point of view where the spill is significant only in terms of its cost. Under that false pretense, it would be entirely possible that the criminal negligence with which BP has treated the Deepwater Horizon rig will ensure through sheer market economics that no other oil company will ever set such low standards again. (If that were true, of course, oil companies would have learned their lesson from the Exxon Valdez, the Santa Barbara spill, or any other host of "accidents"--but this is beside the point.)
From a practical point of view, of course, BP's cost has real consequence for lives, livelihoods, species, and ecosystems, much of which cannot be measured in monetary value. The argument about BP's failure representing a complete failure of the laissez-faire capitalist ideology has significant appeal for the progressive movement because it seeks to rehabilitate the idea that regulation and forethought beats the unseen hand any day of the week. But if environmental leaders were counting on this narrative alone to make transformational energy policy rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the tar-stained gulf beaches, they need another think.
Think about it this way: anyone who is out there just protesting BP is automatically creating a messaging problem for those who want to use the Gulf calamity to trigger a national discussion about our overall energy mix. This may seem counterintuitive, but a simple contrast may be instructive. Let's take the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. The Cuyahoga, which runs through Cleveland, OH, was so polluted at the time from decades of unregulated industrial manufacturing that sparks from a passing train literally set an oil slick on the river's surface ablaze. The images--as well as the mere fact that a body of water was actually on fire--led to support for much stronger environmental regulations, which culminated most notably in the Clean Water Act.
As environmental disasters go, however, the Cuyahoga River fire seems to pale in comparison to millions of gallons of raw crude being spilled into the ocean and devastating an entire region of the country. And while it's far too early to claim as the Washington Post did that this disaster will not produce nearly the same momentum for reform as did other ecological situations, that risk is certainly there--simply because it is not being viewed as a systemic problem.
In the Cuyahoga river fire, there was no one company or individual to blame. There was merely the recognition that we, as a nation, had gone far off course, and that reform was necessary to save the land and waters that we cherished. With BP, on the other hand, there's a concrete villain. And while that may be good for elevating the energy level around the issue, it's actually not so good for the overall narrative of the environmental movement.
It goes without saying that BP as a corporation, as well as many individuals within the highest levels of the BP chain of command, behaved reprehensibly--and are continuing to do so. But if the primary focus of this disaster is on BP's irresponsibility, rather than on the costs and consequences of drilling for oil in the first place, then it should come as no surprise that the only positive outcome that may result of this fiasco will be increased regulation of offshore drilling, rather than a push for a seminal change toward a green energy economy.
Consider the logic. If BP's greed and total lack of concern for human life is portrayed as the main problem, then the natural conclusion is that if only BP had drilled for oil on the ocean floor responsibly, then none of this would have happened--and therefore the main issue isn't that we're drilling for oil, it's that one bad apple was doing it wrong. And since BP has been the main villain in all of this, the main contrast being drawn is between "BP" and "not BP," rather than "oil" and "not oil"--which is where this debate actually belongs if it has any hope of being productive.
Now imagine all the environmental and progressive organizations were a bit less focused on protesting BP, and focused exclusively on a different message instead. Something like this: It doesn't matter where you drill it or how you drill it, this is what oil does. And the only way to make sure this doesn't happen again is to get off oil. That message won't rouse the rabble as much. But if you pound it hard enough in the media, it just might have a more positive influence on policy.
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