08 July 2010

Anglo-American Relations (in HK)

The English are furious with the Americans over this British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last few months, I've had several conversations with our former colonial overlords, and they're pissed off. They're furious with Obama for refferring to their beloved state oil company as British Petroleum (rather than using their greenwashed acronym that apparently stands for nothing, BP). They're furious at Obama for "forcing" British Petroleum to pay into this $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the tragedy, and "forcing" British Petroleum to cut dividends, thereby endangering their precious pensions that are heavily invested in British Petroleum stock.

There are two facts that the former owners of the planet always bring up in these discussions: British Petroleum has more American shareholders than British shareholders, and American companies have been known to cause environmental destruction in other countries (I've yet to have a conversation with an English person who doesn't bring up Bhopal when this topic comes up). Let's examine this insights in light of the current state of events.

It's not surprising that the US has slightly more British Petroleum shareholders than the UK, since we do have 5 times their population, and a higher per capita income. But how relevant is this fact? When corporations fail, the shareholders lose, but the executives always escape with their golden parachutes. And British Petroleum's top executives are British. So feel free to include the American shareholders among the victims of this spill, though I have less sympathy for them than I do for the other victims, human and non-human. So the victims are mostly American, and those who will profit from this no matter how much damage they cause are all British in this case. What exactly is the point again?

Next, Bhopal. Bhopal was a horrible tragedy, and I would not be angry at all if an Indian were to tell me that the US owes India compensation for the damage caused. We do. But if I were talking to an Indian in the immediate aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy, I would not be looking into Indian history for an example of an Indian corporation that caused damage in another country, so that I could throw it in their face in the midst of their grief. That seems mind-bogglingly empathetic. Clearly, one defense mechanism when you know your country has harmed another country is blaming the victims. That's human nature, to a certain extent. But that doesn't make it right.

So I hear about Bhopal a lot these days. What I don't hear is "I'm sorry." This is the worst environmental catastrophe in US history. I'm often reduced to tears when watching the news of the oil leak. In terms of the damage, this is way worse than 9/11. After 9/11, Americans were greeted with sympathy and kindness all over the world. I have experienced plenty of empathy, just not from any English people. From the English, it's been all anger, and finger-pointing. It's really hard not to get angry in return, and I have. But I need to remember that, even though I have yet to come across one, there are English people who don't instinctively blame the victims, who have sympathy. My sample size is small, and it's skewed. So to those English people (I know you're out there), I'd just like to say this: go easy on US, we used to have three coasts and now we only have two. It's sort of a big deal. This damage is permanent, for all practical purposes, since it will never be cleaned up within the lifetime of anyone alive today. Try to understand and empathize rather than lash out when we appear angry over this. Think about how you would feel if Exxon had just destroyed the entire North Sea.

For your viewing pleasure,


  1. I'm English, live in HK and haven't heard one Brit that is remotely upset about the grief BP are getting over this disaster.

    The rest of your rant about Bhopal and 9-11 - well I hope that's an attempt at tongue-in-cheek cos otherwise it's foot in mouth.


  2. mumph, you'll have to explain to me how my foot got into my mouth. What I said about Bhopal was simply that it doesn't seem particularly nice to bring up things like that to someone who is currently mourning the loss of multiple valuable ecosystems. Apparently you disagree, and think it is appropriate. I did not say this oil spill was worse than Bhopal, nor did I imply it.

    As for 9/11: yes, this is worse. Much much worse. On 9/11, we lost three buildings, three jets, and roughly 3,000 people. Buildings and jets can be rebuilt. The lives lost are tragic, but it's a small number compared to the number of automobile fatalities every year in the US. With this oil leak, we lost several irreplaceable ecosystems, we lost the Gulf Coast, and we lost the Gulf itself. None will be rebuilt while I'm alive. We'll have to see how many people end up dying from this, but if you include indirect effects, it could easily surpass 3,000. If the oil destroys the wetlands that protect New Orleans from hurricanes, as many think it will, the next hurricane could end up being much worse than Katrina. Keep in mind how poor people are in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi are, and how many lost their lively-hoods from this. We don't have the social safety net Europeans have, so many of these people will end up dying either directly or indirectly as a result of this spill. But even if the death toll doesn't reach 3,000, the destruction of millions of people's livelihood and quality of life is arguably worst than 3,000 deaths. Personally, I'd rather die instantly in a fireball than suffer a life of poverty in Louisiana. Obviously, it's a judgment that this is worse than 9/11, but if you want to convince me that my judgment is wrong, you'll have to present a coherent argument, not just attack me personally. Most Americans I know think this is worse than 9/11. Obviously, the English disagree. But I already knew that.

    Even though my sample size of unsympathetic Brits just increased by one, I'm still not ready to condemn all your countrymen. I'm sure there are many Brits who can empathize with Americans on this rather than attack us. I just haven't met one yet.


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