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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Gulf Oil Disaster - Reflect or Deflect?

On June 9, 2010, CSRWire Talkback orginally published the guest post below that I wrote to appear on their site.

There is a lot of anger at BP right now resulting from the Gulf oil disaster. Someone told me recently that she was so angry she could think of nothing else and was unable to sleep - and she lives in DC, far from the immediate impact. But I question whether this anger is being harnessed in the right direction.

I watched four fishermen being interviewed on TV last weekend. They were angry at BP for polluting the Gulf and harming the fish stock. They were gassing up their boat and motoring on round to the Texas coast to see if the fishing was better there. What an irony and what better example of allowing anger to deflect attention from one’s own complicity in the event.

I learned recently that 10% of our transport fuel needs are met by oil coming from deep sea drilling. Less gassing up of our boats and cars would go a long way to obviating the need for deep sea drilling. Our pursuit of the lowest priced gas every time we fill up is an incentive for lowest cost exploration and production and for taking short cuts. As consumers we have a share in responsibility for the industry that serves our needs and in how our buying behavior incentivizes it to act.

I have no doubt that in the fullness of time and due process, it will emerge that BP, and perhaps other companies and government, should have done things to avoid the disaster or to respond more effectively. I doubt though there were many, if any, people walking around in BP cognizant of the likelihood of this particular incident and maliciously or even consciously ignoring it. There is absolutely a value in media and public attention to punish ‘bad behavior’ in organizations. But what we must be sure of is that we are not allowing ourselves to blame this on a particular set of circumstances at one company, such that we can isolate this as an aberration and conveniently not reflect on our own organizations.

In my mind, the right channel for our energy is not endless anger at BP. Instead use that energy for everyone in the corporate world, and indeed in non profit and governmental organizations, to be thinking to themselves, what catastrophic event of equivalent consequence, that could be caused by a failure in my organization or in my sector, have I unconsciously overlooked – social, environmental, or economic? Of course it is difficult to know what you don’t know, but if ever there was a motivator for thinking creatively, the Gulf oil spill should be it. It may not even be anything to do with your job, but as employees we have the obligation to create the right culture by raising and addressing those questions.

I recall reading once that identifying sometimes irrelevant circumstances that are different from our own is a psychological method we all use subconsciously to distance ourselves from the personal tragedies we read about in the papers each day. It is tempting to think “that company” is different. But I have friends and colleagues at BP and they are good people.* Wherever you are, by definition the unexpected could happen at your organization too.

None of my comments should in any way be seen as reducing the responsibility of the main parties in this tragedy. The question I ask is how best should we channel our desire to see change? How are you using your frustration and anger from this disaster, to reflect or deflect?

* In the interests of full disclosure I should declare that I worked for BP in a sales engineering role from 1987 to 1989.

Kevin Moss is Head of Corporate Responsibility for BT in North America. He shares his thoughts about the intersection between business and sustainability on his blog, CSR Perspective. The views reflected here are his own and, as such, may not necessarily reflect the views of BT, or of any former or future employer

Readers: Take up Kevin Moss’ challenge. Tell Talkback how your company or sector can prevent catastrophe.


  1. Please see:

    Paddy Briggs

  2. Paddy, thanks for the link. A few words to explain would be welcomed :-)