The Oil Spill – A Lesson in the Cardinal Virtues

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.

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. No major player in the Gulf is trying to throw a monkey wrench into the response, notwithstanding that it involves uncertain methods at unprecedented ocean depths. If only a collective cleanup of American culture could also be undertaken, without running into firestorms of rancor and resistance.

There is general agreement in the nation about collective action to check the oil spill in the Gulf. This consensus contrasts starkly with the culture war in America. Powerful opposition emerges against every concerted attempt to cap the wellsprings of immorality in the country, and to stop its upsurge. Consider the hue and the cry whenever pro-life legislation is proposed. Or try advocating for the return of religion to the public school classroom, and then brace yourself for the ad hominem attack. Count yourself fortunate if they call you nothing worse than a theocrat.

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.

As a potential silver lining to the array of black plumes in the Gulf, the repulsiveness of the oil spill might serve as a public relations awakener and motivator. Why not take the spill as a metaphor for the way society has been gradually but steadily despoiled? Let national decadence be seen as 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. In the national debate to date, we have conceded too much because we argue the limits of civil liberties, rather than how to limit cultural pollution.

Above all, let us look to a benevolent Providence, which did (until America’s apostasy) abundantly bless our life as a country. Only under Almighty God can we the people recapture the bridge of the flagship of state. Then, with the cardinal virtues in mind, let the counterrevolution begin. We need old fashioned statesmanship to steer the national flotilla ­– the polity, economy, and culture – back toward concord with the Creator of clean waters.

By

writer, retired history teacher, practicing cradle Catholic, lecturer for Knights of Columbus, council 1379. Knight of the Month, October 2008, February 2009.

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  • http://prairiehawk.me PrairieHawk

    I would say it violates the virtue of prudence to go drilling in deep waters without a comprehensive and tested plan for what to do in the event of a spill. Who was minding the store when BP first proposed the Deepwater Horizon and rigs like it? As for moral decay, we’ve got more than a black gooey mess on our hands. The very foundations of our civilization are fracturing. It will take more than a cleanup; it will take a re-creation and complete renewal of our society. We have the will to clean up the Gulf of Mexico; will we have the will to renew our culture?

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  • cbalducc

    Agreed, but is the moratorium on off-shore drilling, depriving many people of jobs, a proper response?

  • Christi Derr

    excellent observations!! We are all a bit guilty of gluttony as well – too much driving, not enough public transportation. I would love to see a development of new jobs in non-gas dependent forms of transportation. (sure, not a real word, but you get the idea!) Europe at least has this right.

  • http://prairiehawk.me PrairieHawk

    If our President is prudently suspending operations in order to reevaluate and develop a comprehensive disaster plan, then I would have to say it is a proper response. Many more people are deprived of jobs now that the fishing and tourism industries have been harmed. I support offshore drilling; we just have to respect the forces of nature, economics, and human behavior that are at work.

  • karenhanegan

    A most excellent analysis! I have been forwarding petitions for signature, information with regard to all the abuses of power and coverups BP performed before and after the spill, as they came to light for several weeks now. This article will be forwarded to many also.

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar Ilarsadin

    @Don Struble: You are absolutely correct, in that any meaningful change in our society will begin with each and every one of us demanding a more moral and just lifestyle first of ourselves, and then of our so-called public servants.

    @Christi Derr: It is unfortunate that public transportation’s reputation for saving costs has no basis in reality. It is based on the passenger’s costs mostly getting diverted to taxpayers. Buses cost more per passenger mile than cars. Trolleys cost more per passenger mile than buses. Light rail and monorails cost more per passenger mile than trolleys. And subways cost more per passenger mile than almost anything. And all of them require you to arrange your life around a schedule set by somebody else. which imposes costs of its own.

    The cheaper alternatives to cars are riding bicycles and walking. I’ve done plenty of both while living without a car (seven or eight years, off and on). Average rate of travel for walking is about 20 minutes per mile; for running, at least 10 minutes per mile; for cycling, six to four minutes per mile (depending on strength and physical condition). Driving on surface streets nets about one and a half to two minutes per mile (with buses a bit slower than that, because of their frequent stops, which they have to make to keep from getting ahead of schedule), and freeway driving 50-60 seconds per mile.

    How much of your time, your life, are you willing to give up?

    @karenhanegan: Don’t forget that the government colluded with BP in many of those abuses and coverups, and engaged in some of their own. It takes two for a bribe to work.

  • http://www.tell-usa.org Robert Struble, Jr.

    @Arkanabar Ilarsadinl,
    Tim Dickinson’s special report on June 8th in leftist magazine, Rolling Stone, gives a lot of detail on the Bush and the Obama Administrations’ role in the Gulf foulup. Including this excerpt:

    “Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings – yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency’s culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP – a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company – with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years. He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP – and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.”

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/111965?RS_show_page=0

  • http://www.tell-usa.org Robert Struble, Jr.

    I’m sure Christians would differ about taking the lightening strike & resultant fire of June 15th as metaphor. The bolt disabled the BP oil recovery ship for several hours prior to the Obama Oval Office speech on the crisis. Some would dismiss thunderbolts, a la Zeus and the Olympian myth, as an anachronistic form of auspices, especially as compared to divine displeasure as revealed in Scripture and sacred Tradition.

    Nevertheless it is significant that BP, a transnational corporation, has fouled creation in more ways than one. HRC’s “Corporate Equality Index” gives BP a 100% gay friendly rating. HRC (Human Rights Campaign) is a gay rights group that ranks Fortune 500 companies based on their employment policies and political contributions to gay and transgender causes. Cheveron/Texaco and Shell also secured a 100% HRC rating for 2009, as compared to 63% for ConocoPhillips. (See, http://www.hrc.org/buyersguide2010/hrc_buyersguide_09.pdf).

    One might even take the physical / cultural analogy a step further as regards HRC’s zero rating for Exxon-Mobil. Do I hear an alleluia? Compare E-M’s corporate repentance over the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, to the firm’s refusal to join ranks with postmodern polluters of the social environment. At their annual meeting in April, only 22 percent of Exxon-Mobil shareholders voted to add sexual orientation to the company’s nondiscrimination policy (down from 40% in 2009). (http://www.dallasvoice.com/instant-tea/2010/05/26/exxonmobil-shareholders-vote-down-lgbt-protections/

  • http://www.tell-usa.org Robert Struble, Jr.

    Correction: The meeting took place in Dallas TX on May 26th, some five weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. With the continuing BP oil disaster on everyone’s mind, could there have been a cause-effect relationship to the shift in shareholder opinion? Might some shareholders have had misgivings about polluting the culture, inspired by the ongoing environmental pollution in the Gulf?

  • http://www.tell-usa.org Robert Struble, Jr.

    Went to a Church related event yesterday and emerged shocked. Some were actually giving thumbs up to a court order to resume deep water drilling in the Gulf.

    People outside the ranks of the Church must be majorly scandalized by “killing and drilling” Christians. How can we follow Christ and still be gung ho about imperialist wars and reckless corporate profiteering? Many potential converts must ask this question and then conclude that they want no part of Christianity.

  • http://www.tell-usa.org Robert Struble, Jr.

    On July 13th in CE, Fr. John Rausch writes a good article on the oil spill and environmental responsibility entitled, “On the Cradle of Life.”
    http://catholicexchange.com/2010/07/13/132175/

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