Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Blair Sheppard, Dean of the Fuqua School of Business. We had our usual once-every-year-or-two lunch where we crammed way too much into a short hour but, among the ideas I'm still mulling a day later is the fact that, in the face of a crisis, sometimes we rally together brilliantly--and sometimes we do not. What makes the difference? When do we respond and when do we simply rail without action? And why, in the face of the world's largest environmental disaster, are we shaking our fists, watching that undersea webcam, but not pulling together in a coordinated (however loosely) worldwide effort on every front, on every level, from many political, national, and commercial points of view and with different action plans all together? We do in some disasters. Why not in this one?
After the disaster of the Haitian earthquake, world relief organizations worked together in a coordinated effort to respond and continue to work on the ground as best they can, including in the World Bank relieving Haiti of its debt. That's a global effort, from individual and institutional volunteers (all the communities and all the churches worldwide), to corporate agencies and national agencies, focusing and coordinating activities. It's not perfect, but it does seem to be making a crucial difference.
Now, look at the BP oil gusher. It's not a spill, folks. It is spilling. A spewing. It is not over, and I simply am not seeing the coordinated world attention to a multi-pronged relief effort. Perhaps because this is an ongoing and an entirely manmade disaster, politics are so deeply interwoven into the solutions that there seems to be a state of impotent outrage without concerted adaptive planning and coordinated collaborative thinking on the many levels that need to be addressed. Or if that is happening (and I'd love to hear more if I'm missing it) then not only is our Murdoch-driven media not covering it but neither is Twitter (my usual source of instant news) aflutter with breaking news of international relief. This is the biggest PR moment in history for the environmental movement. Why isn't their a coordinated effort taking advantage of this event to show us all how we can be doing better, the oil companies included?
Instead of obsessing (ridiculously) over whether Pres. Obama is or isn't acting paternal enough or forcefully or passionately enough, why aren't we all taking responsibility for sharing in a worldwide moment of taking stock of our curatorship of a fragile environment and finding better ways to be citizens of a perishable world?
So I'm blogging about it, because I'm not sure what else to do, and maybe others will pick up the theme. Why not make beleaguered New Orleans Oil-Spill Central, the headquarters for an international relief effort that could immediately infuse that economy with millions, or even billions of dollars, from every organization in the world, sending emissaries and relief workers there. Why not begin by employing anyone put out of business by the BP Oil Spew in the various parts of the hospitality industry that would need to be geared up by making this area a headquarters for environmentalism. Since local workers are most upset with President Obama for passing a six-month moratorium on oil mining deep-sea exploration (incomprehensibly to anyone elsewhere in its short-range thinking, but entirely understandably to those already economically marginal and who went to deep-sea oil exploration after deep-sea fishing beds ran out a decade ago), target those workers as part of the support system for international "environmental relief" workers pouring into New Orleans and the Gulf area. Since businesses are dying all along the Gulf beaches, turn those businesses into middle markets for the relief effort, using their hospitality talents to take care of this new summit. It's not a perfect solution but it attends to the immediate victims first, in the same way one would triage in the Haitian and other disasters.
What needs to happen next is a summit of government officials worldwide, heads of every imaginable environmental group, governors from each of the local states, but also representatives from countries all around the world. This is an environmental disaster of epic proportions but it is not the only one nor the only of its kind. If over a million gallons of crude have been spewed in the Nigerian delta, Nigerian environmentalists need to be there too. If Exxon has learned anything from its own disaster (and has it, by the way?), it needs to be there. China and India, with their booming economies and their Dickens' like spewing of garbage into the world's environment, need to be there. Reconvene the Kyoto summit as a disaster committee. Maybe they can do better in the face of an ongoing disaster. But clearly the partnership has to be environmental relief agencies, governments, NGO's, and business. BP's disaster is destroying the planet--but it is also the world's worst PR disaster for the oil industry. Let them do what business always does when there is a PR disaster. Do good works, people! Unite together to do good works! Since the whole oil industry with its global corporate interconnections is incestuous anyway, the BP Oil Spew isn't good for any oil company. So do good works! Use those scientists to come up with some profitable solutions that don't kill the planet and destroy the world for future generations. We need you. Right? You always say business has the best solutions. Give us some, please, pretty please!
And where are the big, charismatic non-governmental environmental leaders when we need them? The only thing I've heard about Al Gore recently is that he separated from Tipper. While I feel their personal pain, I want a leader now. I want several leaders. I don't care if they are labelled "democratic" or "republican," "liberal" or "conservative," the point of the Haitian relief network is Paul Farmer was there and so were fundamentalist churches. We need that kind of leadership now, kids suspending local church trips to Disney World to go to the Gulf to clean birds on the beaches and Al Gore holding a July 4th Oil Independence Day in New Orleans to come up with the multiple solutions such a complex and ongoing problem (it won't stop with the relief wells, it won't stop in Nigeria and elsewhere). We need every major scientist and scientific organization coordinating data and solutions and providing lessons large and small. Low-energy lighting and supports for making our houses more energy efficient, with guidelines and tax incentives and rewards. Car emission standards. Oil use standards and guidelines. Rules about plastic (oil-based) bags in every state, with every grocery store charging a nickel a bag for plastic and that nickel going into an environmental fund. Bake sales, for goodness sakes, for workers put out of business or for injured animals. And at the same time huge international agreements on policy on oil drilling, oil safety standards, oil use, and responsibility, too. July 4 International Oil Independence Day: come to New Orleans. Make it happen.
And online activists, where the heck are you now? Jane McGonigal's World Without Oil online game may have brought hundreds or thousands of solutions--but why not turn World Without Oil into the World With Too Much Oil game that coalesces virtual thinking on a real and ongoing problem now? There is so much to do on so many fronts. We need to do it. Now.