Six years ago, a dozen executives at British Petroleum invited me to meet with them at their headquarters in London. I remember my vivid impression of the largest employer in England. They seemed to be everywhere, with their own drivers to chauffeur me around, and their explicit rules about personal and public safety
Their stated concern was “Dr. Piasecki, what happens to an oil giant when it reaches over 300 billion in revenue?”
They knew at the time that I was writing a book on the 600 largest corporations in the world. Now, after witnessing the largest environmental disaster in American history unfold daily before our eyes, with the wake of the disaster growing in consequence each week, I only wish I was more verbal in my concerns at the time.
William Blake once wrote that he could see the whole world in grain of sand. To be more accurate, I believe the world is seeing the future of corporate governance, the reasons we must change our rate of oil consumption, and the very the nature of how swift and severe social response capitalism has become, in this one accident. (Visit www.changethis.com for a Piasecki reflection on social response capitalism). This single BP oil disaster will add to the worst tensions in our world right now, the growing hatreds between the East and the West, between scientists and humanists, between advocates for sustainability and the strong stage of corporate apologists. From this encounter between big oil, the Gulf of Mexico, our pelicans and our fisherman, I predict a new kind of global environmentalist—Avatar Environmentalists—who will grow each decade before our eyes. Of course, avatars have been part of the human imagination long before the record-breaking movie made them fashionable again. They once roamed the fantasies of Indian, Norse, Irish and Native American folktales. But after BP’s mishap of massive proportions, I believe there are many handicapped former environmentalists growing as big in their reach as movie director James Cameron’s now famous Avatars. They will work through the night as we sleep. They will arm themselves with new weapons and new strategic friends in the media and the developing regions of the world, such as India, China, and Africa.
For more than 40 years, environmentalists have fought their battles over rules, focused their attacks on known rulers, and in the end are too often known for increasing the rates of commerce. But an avatar works in reshaping our expectations and imagination, the very core of all cultures. They can attack our appetites.
The new post-BP environmentalist, I predict, will stand taller than those from Earth Day and from Yale and Harvard. They will be more immediate and less technical. They will be pumped up on the steroids of Hollywood, mass media, and Twitter more than the schooling of MBAs. And they will attract massive audiences, with their green eyes and softer training on behalf of the Earth.
This new post-oil spill advocate will have a greater forum now, full of the potential of plain truths. This may prove the real cost of the oil spill. BP is going to be remembered by this spill longer than Exxon will suffer the Valdez spill or Shell the Brent Spar debacle. But I believe this is not the real issue.
The real issue, not yet noted at industryweek.com or huffingtonpost.com or cnn.com is what has happened to the public’s imagination regarding massive development projects.
This BP spill is not only hurting the oil and the energy sector. This affects all business, all development. Think of the many shrimp fisherman in the gulf. Consider the hotel occupancy-based businesses -- from entertainment in the Gulf to tourism around the beach, that are now being dragged down like a pelican trying to fly after being drenched in oil.
What has happened in the Gulf is a sea of change. Folks from the Middle East to land-locked middle America to Africa are beginning to ask “What is enough? How can we readjust our development expectations in this swift and severe world so we get to go where we want without such a stain?”
Bruce Piasecki is the president of the AHC Group, a management consulting firm since 1981. His seven books define new directions in capitalism and reshape the purposes of corporate environmental and energy strategy. In addition to providing corporate governance consulting services, the firm also produces workshops and private reports on corporate environmental strategy, management approaches, emerging issues, new product positioning, corporate governance questions, and near-term shareholder value enhancement through promotion of corporate responsibility programs.