BP Should Have Read Oobleck

Apologies Only Make Environmental Damages Disappear in Fairy Tales, Yet There's a Lesson to Learned from Children's Fables

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Sometimes I don't know what to write about. Other times I can't choose which of several tales to tell. At first, I was going to write "Too Little, Too Late," and slam BP again following the $4.5 billion settlement it announced Nov. 15 to resolve U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and other criminal claims related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. You know the drill. Why didn't BP and its contractors have sufficient blowout preventers and other inexpensive automatic controls and safety equipment to prevent killing 11 of its rig workers and fouling the Gulf of Mexico? Why does BP perform many complex tasks well, but then persist decade after decade with a culture that cuts so many stupid corners and inevitably leads to catastrophe? And, finally, why does BP's board and its major investors—not to mention those at so many other firms—continue to reward ignorant and destructive behavior?

Because it's highly profitable, of course, at least in the present fiscal quarter—which is as far ahead as many companies and people seem to look these days. It's well known that satisfying financial analysts is often more important now than building actual products. Merely moving money around shell-game/con-man style is the way to get the biggest payoff with the least effort. Cash trumps everything else now—logic, common sense, professional pride and basic integrity. And, if pursuing it happens to injure others? Well, just make sure they're at a distance. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

But, where does this short-sightedness come from? I think maybe it's the relative prosperity so many of us grew up in that weakens us. It causes us to focus only on short-term lifestyles, unhealthy consumption levels and Black Friday deals at the expense of traditional self-sacrifice, delaying immediate gratification and investing in innovation with long-term benefits. No more "saving for a rainy day" or "slow and steady wins the race." A little severe, self-imposed austerity might help. I'll let you know how it goes right after I finish this next bag of Cheetos.    

The other rehashed column I was thinking about, "Really Little Engineers," was inspired by two of my co-workers here at Putman Media—Michele Vaccarello Wagner, who is expecting a baby, and Derek Chamberlain, whose wife is also about to give birth. I figured the new arrivals might enjoy some of the picture books that my daughters and I grew out of long ago. You know the drill here, too. Nurturing new engineers looks like it begins with Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs, but it really starts with reading to babies, and keeping them away from the danged TV and all the other video drivel.

The Cat in the Hat, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Curious George Takes a Job and many other stories opens kids' minds to the world, and then wood blocks, Legos and all the other building sets let them get their hands on it. There's your holiday shopping list. De nada.

Surprisingly, while packing the books, I ran across a forgotten Dr. Seuss masterpiece, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. It's about King Derwin of Didd, who gets tired of the usual rain, snow, sunshine and fog, and orders his magicians to invent something new—oobleck. Unfortunately, this new weather phenomenon turns out to be a sticky, green adhesive that pours down on the kingdom, and almost destroys it. Sound familiar? Anyway, the country looks doomed until the king says he's sorry and means it, which makes the oobleck evaporate.   

Of course, apologies only make environmental damage disappear in fairy tales, but the lesson is precious anyway. Sadly, some people just can't seem to even begin to say they're sorry. Sounds familiar again? That's because public apologies after strings of disasters and earlier apologies just aren't enough. I know it's important to limit liability, but there's a point where honesty and self-respect should kick in, and it should be a lot earlier than it is now. Maybe we can sit a few CEOs and board members down with the babies, read Horton Hatches the Egg, and learn to keep some promises.

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