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Things Fall Apart

POSTED: June 16, 2010, 12:00 am

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William Butler Yeats did a good job of capturing a harrowing pandemonium in his poem, The Second Coming. He wrote, in 1919

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

I was twice introduced to the poem in college, first in a class that required the study of English poets, then in a class that examined African literature, including the powerful novel of Nigerian colonization by Chinua Achebe, ironically titled, Things Fall Apart. The poem is so emblazoned on my brain that from time to time it comes to mind, most recently when I contemplate the BP oil spill, its damages, its consequences, and its handling.

I am writing from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition Conference, 55 days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and started an oil leak that apparently continues. While BP says that the leak was only 5000 barrels of oil a day, scientists estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil leaked each day between April 22 until June 3. If you use the midpoint of 30,000 barrels and a period of 42 days (assuming all leaking stopped when a dome to catch some of the leak was installed on June 3), we are talking at least 1.2 million barrels of an oil leak.

BP CEO Tony Hayward outwardly seems to take this matter much less than seriously. At one point (he later apologized) that he couldn't wait for "this" to be over. "I want my life back", he said with some insensitivity, given the fact that eleven people actually lost their lives. In addition, millions are losing a way of life, fishermen with nowhere, now to fish, all of the industries supported by fishermen with nothing to do, a delicate ecological balance upset, with pelicans, turtles, fish and crabs drowning in oil. And with BP stalling on paying claims, or only paying them to those who can document their income through ledgers and tax returns. So many fishermen live in an informal economy that the BP standard is one that has motivated more than 200 lawsuits already.

On his Sunday radio program, Rev. Jesse Jackson had a conversation with Billy Nungesser, who is the President of Plaquemines Parish in coastal Louisiana. Mr. Nungesser talked about the many ways his parish had been affected by the BP oil spill. One of his most harrowing stories was about a 94 year old man who earns money catching minnows as bait for fishermen. Now, even if he can catch the minnows, there are few fishermen who are fishing. So what does a 94-year-old man do now, Nungesser asked? The way he made his living, the way he organized his life, has completely changed. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.

Was this just an accident? Exxon Mobil has had just one safety violation in the past three years. BP has had a whopping seven hundred and sixty safety violations. While no one thinks that Tony "life back" Hayward and his team deliberately caused this massive disaster, their safety record suggests there was always a good possibility that something like this would happen. But BP is whining that when people say "British Petroleum" (which is what BP stands for), we Americans are being "Anglophobic". They have whined so long and so hard that President Obama has spoken with the British Prime Minister to assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. Again, this matter brings Yeats to mind, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

BP has been shilly shallying for nearly two months. President Obama has been to the coastal area 4 times, visiting Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, all affected states. What really needs to happen, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has said, is that the US operations of BP need to be put in some kind of receivership. This is a public sector problem, now, not a private sector problem. Our government must more forcefully contain the predatory capitalism and utter greed that precipitated this crisis.

The tea party folks (full of passionate intensity) are calling the BP spill "Obama's Katrina". That's not accurate. The policies of deregulation that allowed this to happen are Reagan/Bush policies, not Obama's. Still President Obama has the opportunity to be forceful and focused as things fall apart, and to respond to the people British Petroleum feels so free to ignore. What will happen if there is still oil in the water when a hurricane comes? Why is our entire nation not more outraged? How can we all sit silent and complacent while things fall apart? Billy Nungesser asked that all of us push our Congressional representatives to pass legislation containing BP. That is the absolute least we can do.

Dr. Juianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.

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