The Oil Spill

June 21, 2010

7 min read


A good name is more precious than all the oil in the world.

If only the executives of BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, would have taken to heart the wise words of King Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes.

Far better is a good name, Solomon cautioned, than good oil.

The English translation hardly does justice to the beautiful play on words in the original Hebrew. The three letter Hebrew word for oil, shemen, has its first two letters spell the word shem, Hebrew for name. Oil, shemen, has always been a precious and highly prized commodity. But its very descriptive is meant to remind us of the primacy of shem, our name and our reputation.

Oil can offer us wealth. Only our good name can endow us with worth.

Oil can offer us wealth. Only our good name can endow us with worth. Yet so very often people make the mistake of trading their greatest asset, their moral character which has earned them communal respect, for the temporary benefits of riches improperly acquired.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe that President Obama has described as, “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” It has been responsible for horrific death to sea life for hundreds of miles in its wake, destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and caused the closing of countless beaches normally enjoyed by vacationers and tourists. And the worst is far from over. The well has not yet been capped. Leaking oil continues to spew forth at an estimated 60,000 barrels a day, creating pollution whose long-term effects may well produce havoc for years to come.

Cleanup costs are estimated to be in the many billions of dollars and BP, held responsible for its negligence in allowing this to happen, is being talked of in some financial circles as a possible candidate for bankruptcy.

It is a veritable crisis almost beyond belief. And at a time such as this we should remind ourselves of the profound insight of Jawaharlal Nehru that “Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.”

How could something like this have happened? And what is it that we can learn from this terrifying experience? To reflect on the true meaning of this story is to recognize that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a true morality tale that captures the fundamental flaw of human beings responsible for their downfall.

BP has many years of experience successfully bringing oil to the surface even from the very depths of the sea. They've always known what to do and how to do it correctly. But they were a little behind schedule on this particular oil rig. Engineers had warned them that cutting corners might very well cost them dearly. Standards of safety required more time. But the bottom line of greater profits beckoned seductively. We’ll lose a little money, they reasoned, if we will delay and do it the right way. So they chose the opportunity for possible greater monetary rewards over the procedures their own scientists told them were necessary. We will make more money now, they decided, and let the more difficult path of correct behavior be put off to some undetermined future.

Sound familiar?

There is a very famous story told by Leo Tolstoy meant to serve as an allegory of the tragedy of the human condition. It has parallels in midrashic tales and beautifully conveys the idea of Hillel in the Ethics of the Fathers, "And if not now, then when?”

A noblemen, goes the story, wished to reward one of his feudal serfs. He told him that he would bestow great blessing upon him. He would give him the gift of a large piece of land, the exact size of which would be determined by the serf himself. Next morning he would grant him the opportunity to arise early. From sunrise to sunset he could walk and encircle a parcel of land. Whatever he would succeed in walking around would be his. There would be only one condition: he would have to return exactly to the starting point or he would forfeit everything.

How grateful the serf was for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His plan to fulfill the requirements was simple. He would walk in one direction until the sun was directly overhead. Then, knowing it was noon and obviously that half his time had elapsed, he would begin his return journey. In that way he could be certain to be back at the starting point by sunset. That would give him a great parcel of land that would allow him and his family to be rich beyond his wildest dreams.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow I will help you. Today I do not have the time."

But when noon arrived he couldn't bear the thought that this would mark the end of his opportunity for acquiring additional land. If he would only go a little further and then hasten his steps on the return journey he could become so much richer. And so he put off what he knew he should do. On his trek to accumulate his fortune there were people who stopped him for various urgent reasons. To each one he responded, "Tomorrow, tomorrow I will help you. Today I do not have the time." Even when he was told that his own son was hurt and needed him desperately, his answer was the same: "Tell my son that tomorrow I'll have time to spend with them. Tell him that today I'm too busy making my fortune."

Suddenly he realized that he had gone too far in one direction to readily make it back to the starting point. Now he would have to run. It became a race between the sun on the horizon and his frantic footsteps to reach his goal. Faster and faster and faster still he ran. His heart beat quicker, his legs felt as if they were caving beneath him. The sun had almost disappeared. The master was in the distance waiting at the prearranged spot. With one final lunge, the serf leaped to the required spot almost at the very last second, legally fulfilling the condition set upon him. He smiled the smile of the victor. But the smile froze on his face in a death mask as his soul departed, a result of the extreme exertion.

"Take this peasant and bury him in a plot six feet long, two feet wide," commanded the master. "Let him lie there. Let the land be his. That is all the ground he really ever needed."

Tolstoy called this story the race of life. It beautifully captures the foolishness of Everyman who pushes off the things he knows he ideally should do in his haste to acquire ever much more.

How remarkable that this quest for greater and greater riches without regard to the consequences could even define a corporation already in possession of billions of dollars. BP reasoned that it couldn't afford the loss of a few days of oil well production just for some safety precautions. And so they cut corners. They took unwarranted risk for the sake of what they expected to be greater immediate returns.

And the ultimate lesson? They ended up losing not only a considerable portion of what they already had but the one possession that is truly irreplaceable. Their reputation is now in tatters. Their good name is today a thing of the past. If only they would have lived by the credo of King Solomon that a good name is more precious than all the oil in the world.

The message may be too late for BP, but we can strive to incorporate it in our own lives.

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