On Being Green

Toward a sustainable future

Guilty

The British Petroleum plea

BP has pled guilty in regard to the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines in what has been described as the largest criminal penalty in history.  This includes charges against them for making false statements and negligent manslaughter, as well as the legally less serious charge of pollution.  

What does this mean to us? As a species, we care about justice. Although we may talk about "turning the other cheek", it seems much more intuitive to focus on "an eye for an eye":  when there have been negative outcomes, we want someone to have to pay. The satisfying thing about this verdict is that it acknowledges the degree of the damage that was done, and assigns causality to a single entity rather than shrugging it off as a natural disaster. For BP to admit guilt seems like accepting responsibility.  

With regard to individuals, guilt is seen as a self-focused emotion, and one that encourages a change in behavior.  Corporations may be people, but can they feel guilt? Does a guilty plea by a corporation encourage the kind of self-reflection that guilt implies, or is it merely a legal proceeding that allows the company to keep functioning and put this issue behind them?

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As a nation, many of us constructed a narrative about the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that involved the evil oil company causing destruction because of its moral failings. The guilty plea seems like an appropriate end to the story -- like the witch being burned in the oven at the end of Hansel and Gretel.  But we should be cautious about such a tidy interpretation of the event. The fact is that the BP oil rig explosion was part of the way we get oil, which is part of the high demand for oil.  Having a company pay a fine, no matter how large, does not necessarily create the changes that will keep us from future disasters.

 

Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is the Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster.

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