This evening I saw Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, give a talk about the lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I naïvely assumed that most of the audience would be there to hear what BP has learned and could share about how environmental and human impacts of activities like oil drilling can be mitigated.
Because two of the three ‘lessons’ were on how to deal with “crisis communication” and “political risk”: he told us about BP’s own reputational concerns but dismissed the environment and spent very little time on any lessons relevant to conservation. (The other lesson was “risk management” but even that emphasized business rather than environmental risks.
Because despite expressing regret for the lives lost in the explosion, he said “we can deal with the environment: we can restore it”. Really? I guess it’s true: corporations like his think money and technology can solve anything.
Because the questions the students asked were extremely disappointing. Nearly all of them demonstrated the audience’s interest in profits, business success (in the face of environmental and human casualty) and Tony Hayward himself.
Because no one dissented and everyone laughed and clapped and indulged him in what is clearly a reputation and marketing tour for himself and BP.
Q: Why didn’t BP have insurance against a risk like this?
A: Too expensive, BP has been self insured for 20 years.
Q: How do you recover from the personal attacks on you and what do you plan to do next?
A: What happened was terrible but it happened, I’m at peace with it, and now I’m going to take 6 months off and go sailing in the Caribbean and climb Kilimanjaro.
Q: Can you tell us more about the sale of assets BP has promised to pay for the spill? [in reference to Hayward's public promise to sell off $30 billion in assets to cover spill costs and the fact that BP is planning to sell some of its Algerian assets to TNK-BP, a company half owned by BP itself. More on this on Reuters, a blog and another blog.]
Audience: applause and chuckling.
The only thing the Q&A session inspired in me was disgust and disappointment with the audience in the room. They welcomed Tony Hayward with laughter, occasional applause and easy questions. No one challenged his sweeping dismissals of the environmental impacts, all they did was encourage and implicitly support the assumption that all that matters is profit and company reputation. Clearly higher education is still a long way from generating environmental awareness, caring or compassion.
Finally, I was disappointed by the management of the event itself. Ushering Tony Hayward out after a brief 20 minutes of questions, 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the event, was a display of cowardice and revealed a disinterest in the “frank discussion” the moderator had claimed to encourage at the start of the event. I was also disappointed to hear that the person who asked about the sale of assets was swiftly approached by the organizers after the event, apparently to chastise her for this overly challenging question. Sure, the organizers want to maintain a reputation as a safe place for controversial speakers to air their views, but they are verging on stifling challenging questions altogether.
Conclusion: I am most disappointed in the audience (current and former Cambridge students who are members of the Cambridge Union Society) because I expected so much more from them.
As for Tony Hayward, he proved that my naïve optimism that he might show genuine interest in improved environmental risk management was merely a temporary lapse in realism. He doesn’t care and he hasn’t learned.
But I’m also angry that people seem to care so much about profit and so little about nature. And I’m concerned about what we’re up against in this world as conservationists – it feels insurmountable after what I witnessed tonight.