Estimates of the quantity of oil gushing into waters of the Gulf of Mexico continue to increase. BP’S own guess was originally as low as 1,000-5,000. Then the original 5,000 barrels a day grew to 60,000.
Now, more than two weeks into the capping operation, around 45,000 barrels are still poisoning the seas, destroying wildlife and wrecking livelihoods – and there is no prospect of stopping the flow. It is on track to become the worst oil spill since the first Gulf War in 1991, which spilt around six million barrels.
This worsening catastrophe does not just symbolise the intertwined ecological, economic, social and political consequences of capitalist production and distribution. It is at the centre of the universal crisis that is now changing the way of life of every person on the planet. The explosion was by no means an unforeseeable accident. The drive for growth to sustain profits produced a global economy lubricated by increasing amounts of credit and debt and fuelled by oil. As the oil became harder to extract, costs escalated, profits were hit and corners cut.
During the Congressional hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, in the US House of Representatives yesterday, Chair Ed Markey dismantled attempts by the other oil companies to isolate BP. He and other House Democrats ripped into the chiefs of oil companies for filing bogus oil-safety reports before drilling new deep-sea wells, saying they are no better prepared for an offshore disaster than BP. Congressional investigators found that all five of the nation’s major oil firms filed virtually the same safety report prior to drilling new wells - right down to citing a long-dead expert who could be called in the event of an emergency.
The economic consequences are resounding around the world. The highly lucrative local fishing industry has been closed down. Tourism is melting away. BP’s market value has declined by more than 40% since the Horizon drilling rig blew up. The value of pension funds dependent on BP’s profits is dropping like a stone. The mess on Florida’s beaches is heating up the campaign to seize BP’s assets and there are indications that the global corporation is exploring ways to protect its US operation through bankruptcy proceedings.
President Obama’s speech last night, broadcast from the Oval Office, was largely about the need to wean the US off of its addiction to oil. His attempt to divert attention from his inability to do anything effective about the spill not only failed to convince anyone but, according to many commentators, actually worsened the political crisis. As the Financial Times put it ‘And there was something in it to frustrate or antagonise virtually every stakeholder who was listening.’
In his response to BP’s testimony, Ed Markey eloquently expressed the contradiction at the heart of the crisis: “BP is more concerned about minimising its ‘liability’ for the costs of the clean-up than for the ‘livability of the Gulf’ ”.
But the US Congress is no more able to act to stop the destructive actions of global corporations like BP than it is to regulate the financial institutions that arrogantly straddle the world.
The moment has arrived for a new kind of politics and a new kind of democracy based upon collective stewardship of the planet we depend upon. Now is the time for a qualitative change in our relationship with nature. Let’s begin the job of reconstructing democracy from the bottom up through the building of an international network of People’s Assemblies.