The worst oil spill in US history owes a lot to the fading away of moral virtue. I’m unsure if all seven capital sins promoted the BP oil catastrophe. But without doubt, the surge in pride, greed and lust tended to smother the four cardinal virtues – prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.
Virtue’s first foe was pride – the failing of the fallen angels. On April 20, 2010 an intemperate sense of self-worth took its toll on Curt Kuchta, captain of the Deepwater Horizon, causing him to obsess about his rank as commanding officer of the oil rig. According to a Wall Street Journal report, not even extreme crisis could distract Kuchta from worrying about a slight to his authority. After the explosion, Andrea Fleytas, a 23 year old subordinate, had dared to take the initiative and broadcast a distress signal – an SOS which, in the chaos, the captain had neglected to issue: “Mayday, Mayday. This is Deepwater Horizon. We have an uncontrollable fire,” she announced over the airwaves.
In return for her presence of mind under pressure, captain Kuchta scolded her, “I didn’t give you authority to do that.” Minutes later, she ended up in the oily waters swimming for her life, and soon after the captain himself had to jump overboard.
Intuitively, deep water drilling contradicts the cardinal virtue of prudence. The imprudence of the operation is more obvious now that stopping the deepwater gusher in timely fashion has proven to be beyond human power. It seems that America’s vaunted technological prowess gave rise to pridefulness, and the capital sin of pride mixes with prudence about as well as oil with Florida’s white sand beaches.
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). As a reckless driver scoffs at risk, so prideful corporate executives and technocrats drilled into the ocean floor with abandon. They discounted dangers, and paid too little heed to the hazards of the unexpected. They underrated the potential for human blundering. This want of prudence, this scarcity of carefulness, was personified by BP’s “company man,” tentatively identified as Donald Vidrine, (who was onboard at the time of the explosion). First and foremost a profiteer, he overrode the insistence of some rig operators that the drilling process include more precautionary safeguards.
What prompted the foolhardy risk taking? At first glance it seems to have been the commonplace desire to cut costs and maximize profits. This natural (and economically laudable) principle of good business management became a vice, however, in proportion as greed or avarice canceled out the cardinal virtue of temperance. BP was so focused on financial gain that common sense caution got tossed overboard.
Temperance was also in short supply as regards the drug abuse widespread among the Federal inspectors of the drilling operation. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) was the government agency charged with enforcing safety regulations. But, according to reports, some of the inspections were performed while under the influence of drugs like cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. How does it affect your patriotic heart, O citizen, to know that our Federal taxes pay the wages of zonked-out druggies protecting our interests against corporate irresponsibility?
The sin of lust was also a factor in the intemperate behavior of some MMS inspectors, who had no scruples about downloading pornographic images onto their Federal Government computers at taxpayer expense. They also engaged in sexual trysts with oil company employees whom they were supposedly regulating. Cronyism, free hunting and fishing excursions, a trip to the Peach Bowl – this kind of fraternizing and gift exchange brought disaster upon our southern shore. According to acting Solicitor General, Mary L. Kindall, trading in favors appears “to have been a generally accepted practice” between the regulators and the regulated.
Could Titus 1:16 apply here? St. Paul excoriates some intemperate people of his own day, as follows, “…both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their works they disown him, being abominable and unbelieving and worthless for any good work.”
Another cardinal virtue stifled by lust – the lust for black gold – was justice. Reckless disregard for human life violates the Golden Rule, and cost saving shortcuts put the Deepwater Horizon’s crew of 146 in harm’s way. A number of workers were injured in the accident, and eleven died. Also, innumerable birds and other wildlife were killed, and thousands of fishermen and Gulf Coast residents lost their livelihoods. Flora and fauna will take years to recover, if not decades.
Nor is justice served in the democratic sense when BP can purchase millions of dollars worth of political influence. The scale of their plutocratic power reduces mere American citizenship to the status of an oil soaked seagull. Last year BP spent $16 million lobbying the Federal Government. Big oil was able to corrupt Federal regulators to such an extent that government forms used to document inspections got penciled in initially by oil company officials, and later traced over in pen by U.S. Interior Dept. inspectors.
Another cardinal virtue choked at the upper echelon by both BP and government officials was fortitude. Rather than answer questions in courageous fashion, BP obfuscated from the outset, underreporting the amount of leakage, and often refusing to grant interviews with representatives of the media. In his May 27th press conference, President Obama showed evasiveness about whether MMS head, Elizabeth Birnbaum, had been fired or resigned.
One of the few encouraging developments in this disaster is that everyone has pulled together to try and make the fix work, notwithstanding that it involves uncertain methods at unprecedented ocean depths.
There is general agreement in the nation about collective action to check the oil spill in the Gulf, but this is not the case when it comes to moral pollution. Powerful opposition emerges against every concerted attempt to cap the wellsprings of immorality in the country, and to stop its upsurge. The leaders and molders of public opinion seem hell bent to open gushers of immorality into every corner of society.
To cite one strikingly contemporaneous example: Even as the burgeoning masses of oil fouled the Gulf, the US House of Representatives was voting to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the longstanding compromise intended to check “unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” In other words, the man-made assault on the environment in the Gulf isn’t bad enough. Simultaneously they want to downgrade the moral/spiritual atmosphere one must breathe as a soldier.
If only a collective cleanup of American culture could also be undertaken, without running into firestorms of rancor and resistance. Perhaps the array of black plumes in the Gulf, the repulsiveness of the oil spill might serve as a metaphor for the way society has been gradually but steadily despoiled. The national decadence is a half-century long “sin spill” into the culture where our families must live, and in which our children have to grow up.
The PR challenge is to alert more citizens to the severity of the problem. Busy people can easily overlook or downplay the gradual pollution of culture. As Abigail Adams discovered after living for a while in the high society of Europe, “daily example is the most subtle of poisons” — David McCullough, John Adams.
To motivate a cultural cleanup, we need to be assertive and creative in making the point that stewardship over the moral/spiritual environment is as vital to national life as care for the physical environment. Our aim should be to expose moral abominations as gushers that are darkening our cultural waters, corrupting our kids, and turning Americans into an unhappy people. How desperately we need the help of a benevolent Providence! Only under Almighty God can we the people recapture the flagship of state. Then, with the cardinal virtues in mind, steer the national flotilla – the polity, economy, and culture – back toward concord with the Creator of clean waters.