No more BPs: we must turn our deserts into solar power

Why hasn’t the Deepwater Horizon spill, one of the worst ecological disasters in US history, led to a storming of the Bastille of Big Oil? Why aren’t the most urgent problems of our time – environmental crises and climate change – being confronted with the same energy, idealism and optimism as past tragedies of poverty, tyranny and war? The current state of the oil industry is reminiscent of the ancien regime on the eve of the revolution.

The Gulf of Mexico disaster has many faces. BP’s incompetence is one. But there is also the failure of legislative oversight. What until recently was praised as an economic stimulus policy is now being criticised as “collusion with scoundrels”. The BP boss, Tony Hayward, dons sackcloth and ashes and speaks of an “unprecedented series of mishaps”. At a hearing in the US House of Representatives, a Democrat congressman confronted him with the list of BP accidents and revealed another truth: there are still hundreds, indeed thousands of oil platforms in this region alone, but also throughout the world, for which the other oil majors are responsible. To beat up on BP alone is shabby. Deepwater Horizon is the symbol of the demise of a global experiment: a model of progress and development based on exploiting fossil fuels.

No one can claim they didn’t see it coming. For two centuries machines and engines have been driven by combustion and steam. Nonetheless, a generation has grown up knowing that the fossil fuel industry is burning up its own foundations. More than a century ago, Max Weber foresaw the end of oil-based capitalism when he spoke of a time when “the last hundredweight of fossil fuel is burnt up”. Yet why should a world that every day receives many times its energy needs from the sun, a free and inexhaustible source of energy, look on impassively as clouds of oil spew into the deep sea? Right now, we need the celebrated innovative power of capital and the utopian enthusiasm of engineers. “Swords into ploughshares” was the motto of the peace movement. “Deserts into solar power” should be our slogan now.

As the oil gushes forth, the truth is coming to light. “We underestimated the complications involved in drilling for oil at a depth of 1,500 metres,” confesses Hayward. Nobody possesses the necessary safety technology to prevent or respond to such a scenario. Engineers have bored to ever greater depths on the assumption that the risks could be controlled. The depressing truth is that the “residual risk” of deep-sea drilling rests on ignorance. BP estimated that, in the event the safety technology should fail, it would take two to four years for the oil to discharge completely into the sea.

Faced with this long-term catastrophe, Barack Obama has declared “war” on the dark enemy from the deep. But military thinking is no help, because the greatest dangers do not come from enemy states, but from the side-effects of economic, scientific and political decisions. What is the commander-in-chief supposed to do? Send out his fleet of submarines to torpedo the oil leak? Launch a military strike against the management of BP and its sponsors? In the war against terror, George W Bush held Afghanistan and Iraq responsible for al-Qaida. Should Obama follow his example in this Gulf war by making Britain, as BP’s assumed country of origin, responsible for the catastrophic attack on the American coast? Obama stresses the adjective “British” when speaking of the energy company, as though this were 1814 and British troops were again besieging Washington DC.

BP itself has long since been engulfed by globalisation. British Petroleum is not British. In 1998 the company merged with US oil giant Amoco and took the opportunity to abandon the adjective “British” and replace it with “Beyond”. BP, we were invited to think, was the beginning of the future without oil. And the globalised BP cannot be pinned down: it is jointly owned by Americans, its drilling rig was built by Koreans, and it pays corporation tax in Bern. Yet just as Chernobyl was dismissed as a failure of a “communist” reactor, Deepwater Horizon is now being blamed on the country with which the US used to enjoy a “special relationship”. Obama needs, in his own words, “an ass to kick”.

Postwar prosperity in the west laid the foundation for environmental awareness. Now environmental awareness must provide the basis for prosperity in developing countries. These countries will adopt sustainable policies to the extent that the affluent countries invest in their development and adopt a new vision of prosperity and growth. China, India, Brazil and African countries will not agree to any approach that tries to limit their efforts to achieve economic parity – and rightly so.

But does the future lie with a global environmental policy based on carbon trading, which amounts to the global sale of indulgences for CO2 sins? Or will we have the courage to invent and realise a new age of solar energy in which prosperity is not an environmental sin, and when everything from cows to electric toothbrushes is blamed for contributing to CO2 emissions? “It is time to introduce clean forms of energy,” Obama has said. If he can ring in an era that is truly Beyond Petroleum, Big Oil’s Bastille will be doomed.

Ulrich Beck, professor of sociology at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University and the London School of Economics and author of World at Risk.