Speaking of the oil leak


The Chief Operating Officer of BP has just said, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.” What scares me is that the COO of BP is saying this. The main issue seems to be that none of the techniques known to humankind about stopping this kind of oil leak have been tried at depths of 5,000 feet before. We don’t seem to be able to act at a distance, at this particular distance. Although perhaps it’s not so much about distance, but the nature of the medium in which we need to act, the pressure of 5,000 feet of water. After all we can send people to the Moon, operate vehicles on Mars, and send probes to the outer reaches of the solar system. But gravity, the immense pressure of the wall of water and air, and the opposing force of the gushing oil seem to have got the better of us.

So it seems we have overreached ourselves in this case. In our search for more fossil fuel we were willing to take on the risk of not being able to act at these depths, if something were to go wrong. The question is, how can an organisation like BP be allowed to take these kinds of risks in the name of humankind? Is there some sort of moral hazard at work here, not unlike the case of investment bankers who know that they will always be bailed out by the taxpayer in the end? What is the worst thing that can happen to an oil company? Or to its executives? What is the ultimate limit of their liability and responsibility? What if this oil leak is impossible to mend? Would it be any consolation that BP’s shareholders and lenders lose their money and some of its executives end up in jail? That hardly seems to be a fair bargain.

But in some sense oil companies like BP do seem to act as representatives of all its stakeholders, and they may thus feel empowered to take unlimited risks to fulfil the aligned interests of their masters. And we need to think of these stakeholders in the widest sense. It is no good to blame the shareholders and management alone. After all, fossil fuel energy is fundamental for economic growth in our current economic system, hence from politicians to investors all the way down to the end-users, almost all of us are implicated in some way. A spike in the price of crude oil can send fuel protesters into the streets, like it happened repeatedly in the UK.

And here’s what bothers me about this. While we see congressmen breaking down in tears over the effects of this particular oil pollution and Republicans attacking President Obama about his alleged inaction, I do not hear all that much in the mainstream media about the fact that every time Joe Bloggs fills up the tank and goes on various essential and non-essential trips, this lifestyle is predicated on companies like BP taking enormous risks with the future of our environment.

What are we actually doing, when we puncture the surface of the earth to retrieve crude oil? Besides the obvious technological manoeuvres to drill through geological layers, this is also an operation that has to do with connecting histories: our time with those of various creatures which have been slowly cooked over geological time and turned into petroleum. But we aren’t just connecting with something from the very distant past: we also burn up in an instant something that took very long time to form. When we release this energy, we are burning up our history, as it were, partly for Joe Bloggs to be able to go on essential and non-essential trips on a daily basis. Of course it is very difficult to define what essential and non-essential driving or flying or any other form of energy use might mean. It is a proper political question. But maybe it is a question that would be worth having a fight about. But who would dare to take on Joe Bloggs?

This could be misunderstood though as picking on Joe Bloggs, which would be unfair and is definitely not the intention or the solution. Joe Bloggs is important, but just as important (if not more important) are the mechanisms and institutions that enable him to maintain this lifestyle, empower him to protect his interests, and provide him with information to form his opinions. It does seem to come down to the way Joe Bloggs’ relationship with the rest of the collective (humans and nonhumans) is configured, although the relationships between the various institutions (government, industry, religion etc.) that also constitute the collective and take part in formatting Joe Bloggs’ relationship with the collective are just as crucial.

To summarise then, this oil leak seems to be a technical problem, a problem of distance, a problem of pressure (both physical and political), a problem of (political, philosophical, and mass media) representation, a problem of risk management, a problem of time, history and speed, a problem of economic order, a problem of life style, a problem of information and education. An existential problem for a number of creatures, including some humans. A very thorny political problem indeed.

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11 Responses to “Speaking of the oil leak”

  1. traxus4420 Says:

    i see this kind of reasoning everywhere, and finally feel compelled to comment on it now that it appears on a blog a find useful.

    ‘joe bloggs’ is ‘taken on’ every day — the general taxpaying public is the first group to have to pay for the obscene levels of mismanagement and corruption carried out by government and industry officials. the modern citizen lives in a state of enforced dependence on leaders who don’t lead. i’m going to use the recent history of the u.s., my home country, as the main example here. we paid to bail out the same financial industry that drove our economy into the ground. public opinion was strongly in favor of government health care until it was ignored for long enough. we pay the government to regulate the oil industry, but instead the regulators are paid off with bribes from oil executives. the belief that corporate and government power is most influenced by the lifestyle choices of some generic ‘people’ (the ‘consumer sovereignty’ thesis) is pernicious and wrong, colossally so at least since the corporate and government-driven mainstreaming of the automobile and the expressway, and continuous quashing of possible alternatives (like public transportation and hybrid cars). a similar story could be told about the transformation of the american diet. or the defeat of organized labor.

    and punishing BP execs isn’t about a “fair bargain” – the opportunity for that is long gone. it’s about justice. they have to be disciplined because they and their class have disproportionate decision-making responsibilities. if punishing individuals among them seems arbitrary and even unethical, that’s only because the amount of power they have is arbitrary and definitely unethical. punishment won’t be very progressive, but is necessary to maintain whatever semblance of accountability is still possible within our defunct political system.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    on consumer sovereignty:

    The idea of citizen sovereignty has much in common with the marketplace ideology of consumer sovereignty, which posits that buyers determine what producers offer. In the idealized market model, consumers have perfect information of what their choices are, the attributes of all alternative products on offer, and the prices charged by all sellers, and there are so many sellers that none can have influence over the market price. Further, it is assumed that individual consumers know what they want and are not influenced by peer pressure or advertising. In this simplistic model, the distribution of income goes unquestioned, even though some consumers have far more dollar votes than others. Public goods and merit goods, which comprise the social wage and contribute substantially to individual standards of living, are ignored if they cannot be sold through the private market—unless people are mobilized to demand what they understand is theirs by right. Government is viewed as inefficient and presumed to need to be made as business-like in its use of market incentives as possible. A business-like government is one premised on a capitalist view of limited functions, subservient to the class interests hegemonic in a social formation.

  3. Mike Says:

    The issue of responsibility for the oil spill is very complicated, as you point out. All of the companies involved in the recent oil spill blame one another for its occurrence. The federal government has failed to hold BP accountable in terms of safety standards (otherwise there would have been some verifiable and coherent strategy before this event for dealing with it). Americans quite often adopt an instrumental approach to the world which is mediated by technology, in which things like gas and food are dealt with as plentiful commodities, and few questions are raised as to the (ecological, ethical) constitution of the networks that are behind these commodities.

    I agree with the other commenter, though, that we shouldn’t place the ecologically disastrous attitudes of Joe Bloggs on the same level as that of the oil company executives. Even if both consumers and oil company executives are implicated in the economy, power is distributed in such a way that corporations and governments often have a much greater influence in how power is exercised in sociotechnical networks. When corporations construct and maintain massive technical infrastructures oriented around extraction of fossil fuels, they constitute the shape of material culture and make decisions even for Joe Bloggs, about how he will be able to get from one place to another (in the U.S., often by car), and perhaps it doesn’t make too much sense to place Joe and the oil executives on an equal footing.

    Likewise, when the U.S. government spends over a trillion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (as it’s scheduled to do by tomorrow), the efforts to convince Joe Blogg to change from using a car to using a bike look almost futile. Collective irresponsibility is itself a pretty huge problem, and one challenge for ecological reform is that when an indebted government spends massive amounts of money on waging war, this takes away from its ability to deal with other issues, such as education or the environment.

  4. PE Says:

    traxus4420, thank you for your comments. There might be a misunderstanding here, though, probably because I wasn’t very clear or because of the terms I used. My intention was definitely not to advocate the idea of citizen or consumer sovereignty; quite the opposite, although with a twist. See my penultimate paragraph, where I’m emphasising that Joe Bloggs’ identity and preferences are configured or constructed by mechanisms and institutions (which however doesn’t mean that Joe Bloggs is completely devoid of agency). And so I completely agree with you about what you say about public transportation etc., and generally with your critique of the idea of consumer sovereignty (at least within the context of your reference).

    The choice of ‘Joe Bloggs’ as a term was perhaps not the most fortunate on my part if it can be taken to mean ‘a disenfranchised everyday man’ in opposition to some ruling classes, which was not my intention. Indeed, I meant it as a rather inclusive term, kind of like ‘homo economicus’ (although what I was getting at was closer to the equipped ‘homo economicus 2.0’ of Michel Callon). What I meant by ‘taking on Joe Bloggs’ was ‘taking on a particualr version of homo economicus 2.0,’ meaning the particular design of an economic agent which has been equipped with some tools that enable him or her to engage in particular behaviours and activities. And this is why it’s not about taking on a specific class of citizens but about questioning how economic agency is configured.

    Regarding the “fair bargain” comment, I think that might also be a misunderstading. I was not arguing for letting off the BP executives. My point was quite the opposite. I was suggesting that even if the executives end up in jail and all the assets of the firm are seized, it may not compensate for the damage caused, which would then suggest a case of moral hazard (that there may be some other reasons why they feel justified in taking such huge risks and these kinds of risks). So I’m saying that oil companies may be taking risks which they are not able to compensate for, hence there would be a case for curtailing their ability to take such risks.

    Perhaps I should try to articulate some of the main points of the post further:
    1. Oil companies are taking risks that they cannot compensate for.
    2. The reason they have been allowed to take these risks is because they represent the interests of a complex set of stakeholders.
    3. Fossil fuel is fundamental to maintaining the present economic order, hence pretty much all of us are stakeholders in some way, hence the responsibility for this environmental disaster needs to be distributed to a wider set of actors.
    4. Demand for fossil fuel is dependent on the economic activities and lifestyle of ‘homo economicus 2.0’
    5. Hence the configuration of ‘homo economicus 2.0’ and the techniques and institutions participating in the construction of ‘homo economicus 2.0’ need to be examined, and this also means the role of fossil fuel energy in maintaining the current set-up and distribution of economic agency (what constitutes essential and non-essential use of fossil fuel, or to put it another way, how to reduce demand for fossil fuel).

    Here is the Callon reference:
    Callon, M. (2008). Economic Markets and the Rise of Interactive Agencements: From Prosthetic Agencies to Habilitated Agencies. Living in a material world: economic sociology meets science and technology studies. T. J. Pinch and R. Swedberg. Cambridge, Mass.; London, MIT: 29-56.

  5. PE Says:

    Mike, thank you. I posted my reply to traxus before seeing your comment, so perhaps I addressed some of your concerns there. As I suggested, my main intention was not necessarily to “place Joe and the oil executives on an equal footing” and thus erase the differences but to emphasise that “Joe as an equipped and networked entity” and as a particular type of economic agent plays a crucial part as a stakeholder. His interests have also been represented by the oil company, thus providing support which may encourage the oil company to take excessive risks.

    You are suggesting that government and industry are more powerful because they are the ones that construct the network and format the user. However, Joe Bloggs is equipped to participate in opinion polls and protests; he can blog, and more crucially, can vote, so he can also exert some power, and whoever is in government will notice (see the pressure on Obama right now). This power though can also be expressed as resistance to making changes in lifestyle.

    While I take your point about the possibility of a government eroding trust, I would be a lot more positive about the government’s and employers’ role in constructing the necessary networks (and facilities) for and promoting the benefits of switching to riding a bike, for instance, which I’d consider an important part of the project to reconfigure homo economicus 2.0. It would introduce a new tool (the bike), and a new type of fuel: porridge.

  6. traxus4420 Says:


    thanks for the detailed response, but i’m not sure i understand it — how is ‘joe bloggs’ both “a rather inclusive term, something like ‘homo economicus'” and a “particular version of” homo economicus? i quote that sentence, but you seem to repeat what looks to me like a contradiction elsewhere — “pretty much all of us are stakeholders in some way,” that taking on joe bloggs doesnt mean “taking on a specific class of citizens,” but then Joe is also “an equipped and networked entity’ and…a particular type of economic agent.” are you referring to ‘any 1st-world consumer whatever’ — i.e. someone who consumes large quantities of petroleum — or a subtype, i.e. someone relatively privileged enough to use the internet regularly to advertise their views?

    in fact, i don’t see how your summary list in the comment to me evades my criticism that you’re supporting the consumer sovereignty thesis — that economic actors are primarily autonomous individuals whose choices determine everything else (“pretty much all of us are stakeholders in some way,” “Demand for fossil fuel is dependent on the economic activities and lifestyle of ‘homo economicus 2.0”). if you want to “question how economic agency is configured” then your primary unit of analysis should not be the choices made by economic agents themselves, whose apparent existence/agency is not a given, but just the question you’re trying to answer. and class is of course already a specific configuration of economic agency, and not an ontological category.

    thanks for the callon reference, i’m only loosely familiar with him.

  7. mike Says:

    I can see why you might be optimistic that humanity might implement some version Homo economicus 2.0, but it seems that such dreams are much more in the pipelines than really imminent, if you’ll excuse the pun. I’m all for Grassroots activism through blogs and other media, but as of this moment it’s not even clear when he oil spill will end. What makes me hesitant about being completely on board with Homo economicus 2.O is that it seems humans have developed some technologies so powerful that they generate risks exceeding any human control (which you addressed in your original post). No one seems to have the knowledge or skills necessary to end the oil spill. Whether governments, ordinary citizens, designers or all of these are best able to deal with such risk, I don’t know.

  8. mike Says:

    Another issue which arises with this oil spill is the central and contested nature of information. In particular, the dissemination or withholding of information has political significance. For instance, BP is holding back from admitting that their are giant underwater oil plumes, and have claimed that the oil spill is much smaller than it has proven to be. On the other side are the scientists, often in universities, who claim that there are such underwater plumes and that the spill is larger than claimed by BP. It seems to me that aside from the issue of Joe Blogg’s becoming more conscious of his ecologically disastrous practices, reform is also needed in the area of the disclosure and adequate provision of information by corporations, which obviously have a stake precisely in not divulging such information.

  9. BP Oil Spill Again: Graham Hits the Nail… « Larval Subjects . Says:

    […] Posted by larvalsubjects under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  Responding to Anthem’s post on the BP oil spill, Graham writes: There’s been a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach since late […]

  10. PE Says:

    traxus4420, what I meant was closer to your ‘any 1st-world consumer whatever,’ Joe Bloggs is after all used as a generic term. My reference to Joe Bloggs as “an equipped and networked entity” is interpreting this generic consumer as Callon’s ‘homo economicus 2.0’, which is an actor-network theory conception (of the ‘New’ new economic sociology kind) of the generic individual economic actor of the current Western economic order. ‘Homo economicus 2.0′ is a deconstructed and reconstructed version of neo-classical economics’ homo economicus, so in that sense it’s not a particular type (so I’ll take that back).

    However, ‘homo economicus 2.0’ is exactly a critique of the sovereign consumer. It explains why it is not sovereign while it also explains why it looks like sovereign and seems to act as if it were sovereign. So homo economicus 2.0 is a “an equipped and networked entity” in an ontological and sociological sense (‘networked’ is not a reference to having access to the internet but refers to the constitution of the actor by and via heterogeneous networks – see Callon & Law 1997 on this).

    You are of course entitled to your interpretation of my post but I do not accept this interpretation. By ‘taking on Joe Bloggs’ I meant on taking on ‘Joe Bloggs as a networked and constructed entity’ (and more directly the production and construction of homo economicus 2.0) whose interests have been aligned with those of the oil companies and who has been equipped with calculative tools that enable him to protect these interests to pursue a particular lifestyle and implicitly support a particular economic order.

    The big news in the UK today is that the 30% drop in BP’s share price is affecting a large part of the working and retired population because BP is the largest dividend payer in the Footsie 100, hence anyone who has invested in BP or in a FT100 index-linked security (such as most pension funds), is going to lose money. So through their pensions a huge part of the UK’s population’s interests are directly aligned with those of BP. This is just one example. But this is not the same as saying that sovereign consumers are ultimately responsible.

    However, once homo economicus 2.0 is equipped and constructed and his interests are aligned, you can surely expect resistance from this hybrid entity, whatever you want to call it, when its interests are threatened.

    Callon, M. and Law, J. (1997). ‘After the Individual in Society: Lessons on Collectivity from Science, Technology and Society.’ Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 22 (2): 165-182.

  11. PE Says:

    Mike, I understand ‘homo economicus 2.0’ to be a descriptive term, a concept to capture the nature of the seemingly individual actor of our times. So it is not an ideal which needs to be achieved. It’s more about understanding how ‘individual’ economic agency is constructed and achieved today. Once we are able to describe that, it may become easier to affect that process, which is a political task.

    But I don’t think there is anything idealistic about building alliances and coalitions through a number of means: blogging (and social media) is just one particular type of doing it but it can’t be the only one (see Obama’s election campaign as a successful case study). If a particular type of activism is weak, it’s because it hasn’t been able to enroll the right type of actors. I’m afraid I’m very Latourian on this one…

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