Could better corporate ethics have prevented BP oil spill?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Religious leaders and scholars are clamoring for more corporate accountability in the wake of what they call the destruction of God's creation in the Gulf of Mexico, and they may have found a partner in their battle cry: the American business school.

"Look at the Gulf disaster — no one has questioned the core value system that BP used to cut corners with that rig out in the Gulf; namely, the race to maximize profits at all costs," said Mark Wallace, a professor of religious studies at Swarthmore College. "That's the religion of our time . . . the fundamental worldview that animates our common life together."

Eco-religious scholars such as Wallace aren't calling for the erosion of capitalism. Rather, they envision a nuanced form in which businesses also consider the well-being of communities and the environment in computing the bottom line. It's a system known as triple bottom line economics.

Business educators say they see no conflict in the approach — and expect the BP spill will soon be part of their curriculums as well.

"Without a doubt, it's feasible for companies to incorporate those values. Anyone who looks at this particular situation in hindsight is going to recognize that prudence is the best option," said Bruce Bullock, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business. "Good business and good environmental sense need not conflict."

David Garvin, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said that research indicates the triple bottom line approach typically doesn't hurt a business's financial results. For that reason, more and more businesses are willing to use it.

"It is indeed a growing phenomenon, largely because society is holding business leaders accountable in multiple arenas, far more so today than they did in past," Garvin said.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has offered a moment for reflection for leaders in the religious community about their most basic beliefs.

"It's an opportunity to raise these larger questions as a society: What constitutes the good life?" said Walt Grazer, a former director of the Environmental Justice Program for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That question has spurred deeper thinking about the economy by religious scholars, who've turned to the Bible for answers.

"A general theme from the Hebrew Scriptures that may be relevant to Deepwater is one that runs through the Prophets: When the people have become arrogant and obsessed with wealth, the poor suffer and the land suffers," said Willis Jenkins, professor of social ethics at Yale Divinity School. "Says the prophet Hosea: 'Even the birds of the air and fish of the sea are perishing.'"

The imagery of the trees, water and land that pervades the Psalms suggests that "the song of Creation is meant to be respected and revered," noted Mary Evelyn Tucker, coordinator of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

Instead, Tucker lamented, disasters like the spill in the Gulf illustrate the "endless appetite of the octopus of market capitalism."

For business instructors such as Garvin, the BP spill has brought home the idea that future corporate leaders must develop personal standards for making decisions that go beyond just a financial calculation.

He predicts that a BP case study where students act out the same choices BP officials faced will soon enter the curriculum.

One priority for business schools and corporations as a result of the spill will be "getting students and executives to understand the power of situational pressures," Garvin said.

Many of the factors thought to have led to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig were the result of bad decisions in which a less expensive option — whether to run a test or use a particular kind casing pipe, for example — was consistently chosen over one that would have cost more money.

The task for business instructors, Garvin added, will be to teach students how to remove themselves from those pressures and also build in mechanisms for dissent that were absent at BP.

As with business leaders, religious scholars place the onus for change on the individual.

"What happened in the Gulf — that's me," Wallace said. "It's not about BP or the Bush or the Obama administration — it's about every day people in the West who insist on cheap coal, cheap oil and cheap gas to power their lifestyles."

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