Six weeks after oil began gushing into the Gulf, the United States faces what appears to be its worst man-made ecological disaster with estimates as high as 19,000 barrels of oil per day destroying the environment and a way of life for countless Americans. Yet too few Americans have framed the issue in moral terms.
Tugboats battle the blazing remnants of Deepwater Horizon, the offshore oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
One exception is Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), who said, "From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."
Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce two weeks after the BP eruption, where he rambled against the government – anti-regulation, anti-health care reform, anti-taxation – and said trust the private sector, Perry chose predictably to defend BP and inexplicably to blame God.
"We don't know what the event that has allowed for this massive oil to be released," said Perry. "And until we know that, I hope we don't see a knee-jerk reaction across this country that says we're going to shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, because the cost to this country will be staggering."
The next day, Perry refused to back off blaming God: "Nobody knows what happened, and I said that in my remarks, that there was a lot of speculation. It could have been an act of God, it could have been, you know, who knows?"
He defended his position, claiming he was using a legal term – "acts of God" – and tried to blame the media for misrepresenting his statement.
"I meant exactly what Webster said by that. It is something that no one can put their finger on. It may be an accident. It may be something else," said Perry. "I do think it is very intriguing that those of you in the media have focused in on one statement when the clear definition of that is pretty easy to get your hands on."
Perry's knee-jerk defense of Big Oil and desire to shift responsibility away from corporate accountability led to another misstatement. "Webster" does not say what Perry said it said.
My Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary has the following definition next to the term acts of God: "an extraordinary interruption by a natural cause (as a flood, or earthquake) of the usual course of events that experience, prescience, or care cannot reasonably foresee or prevent."
Contrary to Perry's morally absurd claim, God is not to blame for BP's corporate greed, America's sloth, or prideful confidence in technological infallibility.
Thankfully, not all Texas Republicans are as theologically challenged and ideologically impaired as Perry.
Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said at a congressional subcommittee hearing, "Now we've had an accident. It is not an act of God."
Barton, a congressman joined at the hip to Big Oil, said: "The amount of pressure, the amount of gas and oil that came up that bore hole is something that was foreseeable. It is something that could have been and should have been contained. The blowout prevention equipment that was on that rig had a design capacity that should have controlled that explosion. It didn't. The facts that we have uncovered in this investigation through the documents that have been provided show that there was, in all probability, shoddy maintenance. There were mislabeled components – the diagrams didn't depict the actual equipment – but that was not an act of God, like a hurricane, earthquake or volcano that man can't control."
As Barton clearly points out, the blowout was an act of man.
Behind the human-triggered action are three moral transgressions. Traditional Christianity identifies greed, sloth and pride as three deadly sins – sins that manifest themselves in BP's disaster.
BP is driven by corporate greed, the kind of greed that takes shortcuts to maximize profits, the kind of greed that takes risks at depths where problems can't be managed.
According to Climate Progress, BP turned a breath-taking $163 billion in profits between 2001 and 2009. During the first quarter of 2010, BP averaged $93 million per day in profit.
Americans are driven by sloth or moral indifference. We are unwilling to protect the environment, an undeniable biblical imperative, by breaking our energy dependence on dirty oil and supporting a climate bill that will invest in clean, renewable energy.
Slothfulness finds expression among those who don't care if the government regulates the oil industry and foolishly trust Big Oil to do the right thing.
After almost four decades of the environmental movement, too many Christians are still indifferent to earth care. If the biblical witness is clear, and it is, what explains human irresponsibility? One answer is sin, the sin of indifference.
Such moral indifference is at the heart of the "drill baby drill" ideology that refuses to yield its selfish individualism to the common good. We consume and pollute now with no regard to the destructive consequences.
BP was certainly prideful about its technological infallibility. BP couldn't imagine failure. A BP official said that the company had not built a container device before the blowout because it "seemed inconceivable" that the preventer mechanism would fail. He said, "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now."
BP has proven repeatedly through its failures to shut off the gusher that it was unprepared. Why was BP unprepared? It arrogantly believed its technology wouldn't fail.
Yes, the BP disaster is a moral issue, one that goes to the very heart of our economic and cultural crisis about energy and the environment.
Loving one's neighbors means ensuring that they have a decent place to live – now and in the future. The moral choice is ours – we can take advantage of the current crisis to take the right steps or we can evade our responsibility for the common good.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. A shorter version appeared on Wednesday on the Washington Post's "On Faith" page.