Are consumers responsible for the BP oil disaster?
Following the BP/Deepwater oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, many commentators have tried to explain why it happened. Many blame greed and arrogance in BPâ€™s executive offices. Others blame it on the Military-Oil-Government alliance that views free-flowing oil (and free-flowing oil profits) as something to promoted at all costs.
But some writers identify a different cause. Bonus-seeking executives, corrupt politicians and oil-hungry generals all played a role, but they were only front men for the real villains â€“ consumers.
â€œWhoâ€™s Really to Blame for the BP Oil Spill? We Are,â€ by U.S. green activist Dave Chameides, is typical:
Similarly, a Guardian article by British academic Mark Coeckelbergh was headlined, â€œWeâ€™re all to blame for the oil spill.â€
These are just two of many such articles.  All promote a simple lesson: If only â€œweâ€ would wean ourselves of our oil addiction, then â€œtheyâ€ would stop destroying the environment. If â€œweâ€ would just use less oil, then â€œtheyâ€ wouldnâ€™t have to drill in environmentally sensitive areas like the Gulf of Mexico.
As Al Gore wrote a few years ago: â€œAll of us contribute to climate change through the daily choices we make â€¦ you can begin to take action and work toward living a carbon-neutral life.â€ 
Buy green products, drive less and save the world.
Such views rest on the implicit assumption that corporations â€“ indeed the capitalist economy as a whole â€“ are driven by consumersâ€™ desires and choices, as displayed in the market. Economist Mark Perry of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, explains:
Perry is echoing the opinions of the influential libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises:
This view, usually called consumer sovereignty, is widely held, not just by conservative economists but by commentators of many political stripes. It is conventional wisdom in the worst sense of the term, a dominant superstition that is assumed to be obviously true and so is never questioned.
But there are many reasons to believe that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The following are just four of them.
The market is manipulated
Fifty-three of the one hundred largest economies in the world are corporations. Exxon Mobil alone is larger than 180 countries.  In 2000, Fortune magazine reported that the 500 largest industrial corporations had revenues equal to two-thirds of all U.S. production. 
Those corporate behemoths constantly use their immense economic power to influence consumersâ€™ choices. As a result, the balance of information and persuasion in the consumer goods marketplace is overwhelmingly weighted in favor of sellers and against buyers, for corporations and against consumers.
Michael LÃ¶wy writes:
Michael Dawson argues convincingly that advertising has to be understood as part of a much larger marketing process that aims â€œto make commonersâ€™ off-the-job habits better serve corporate bottom lines.â€
Dawson calls this process a form of â€œclass struggle from above.â€
As liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith insisted, the immense sums spent on advertising â€œmust be integrated with the theory of consumer demand. They are too big to be ignored.â€ This, he said, â€œmeans recognizing that wants are dependent on productionâ€¦. [which] actively through advertising and related activities, creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.â€
This is not to suggest that consumers are helpless victims of all-powerful marketing monsters. Consumers frequently resist being manipulated, and specific advertising campaigns often fail. But by spending a trillion dollars a year on marketing, corporations donâ€™t just promote individual products: they set the terms under which the market operates, define the range of permissible choices, and promote the constant expansion of needs and purchases that their profits depend on. They wouldnâ€™t spend the money if it wasnâ€™t working.
Consumers arenâ€™t equal
Competition among consumers is also grossly unequal. â€œConsumer democracyâ€ is rendered meaningless by the fact that a few consumers have most of the votes, because they have most of the money.
Itâ€™s sometimes argued that inequality of wealth doesnâ€™t matter, because the rich are vastly outnumbered â€“ our combined wealth lets the rest of us outvote the rich in the market. That sounds good, but it just isnâ€™t true. The rich donâ€™t just have more money than us as individuals, they have more than us collectively.
A recent study of the global distribution of household wealth, published by the prestigious World Institute for Development Economics Research, revealed just how much more the rich own than the rest of us.
Study after study leads to similar conclusions.
- In Australia, eleven very rich individuals own more than the countryâ€™s 800,000 poorest households combined. 
- The richest 5% of Americans own more than everyone else in the U.S. combined. 
- The 147 individuals who topped the 2002 Forbes â€œWorldâ€™s Richest Peopleâ€ list had total wealth equal to the total annual income of three billion people, half the worldâ€™s population. 
Such gross inequality exposes the term â€œconsumer democracyâ€ for the fraud that it is. The capitalist market is a plutocracy: we all participate, but a tiny minority of very rich people has decisive influence.
Market choice is restricted
While consumers have some ability to choose among a variety of products, they canâ€™t choose products that capitalists choose not to offer. Buyers face a â€œproffered world of micro-choices, where Ford versus Chevy is a live issue, but cars versus trains is most certainly not.â€ 
The market is also restricted by political, social and economic decisions â€“ past and present â€“ that few consumers have any ability to influence.
North Americaâ€™s automobile-intensive culture, for example, is the product of a multi-pronged, multi-year campaign by the oil and automobile industries, beginning in the 1930s, to limit public transit, pour billions of public dollars into building roads, enforce zoning restrictions and building programs that encouraged urban sprawl â€“ and at the same to promote the car as the quintessential symbol of success, freedom and modernity.
There is even less choice when it comes to oil â€“ it is so pervasive in every aspect of production and distribution that one analyst has justly called it â€œthe stuff without which nothing else happens.â€ 
Indeed, itâ€™s nearly impossible to buy a household product that isnâ€™t partially or completely made from oil-derived chemicals. These are just a few examples:
Thatâ€™s not to say that people shouldnâ€™t conserve, shouldnâ€™t try to be as green as possible. Of course we should. But only radical social and economic change can possibly free us from dependence on oil. That choice isnâ€™t available in the market.
Consumers donâ€™t control production
In his article blaming consumers for the BP oil spill, Dave Chameides (who calls himself â€œSustainable Daveâ€) recommends remedial action: â€œStop driving your car one day a week â€¦ Ride your bike.â€
Thatâ€™s a good idea â€¦ but bear in mind that your bicycleâ€™s tires, brake pads, handle grips, cable sheaths, lubricant, paint and other components are all made from oil. The metal was smelted, and the frame was formed and assembled, in factories that depend on oil. The finished bike was delivered to the shop in a diesel-powered truck driving on asphalt (oil again) roads.
The point, as environmental sociologist Alan Schnaiberg and his colleagues point out, is that even though consumers may decide what to buy from among the products that capitalists put on offer, they donâ€™t get to choose how those products are made.
Michael Dawson makes a similar point:
Even if we accept the farfetched idea that oil companies drill new wells only to please consumers, no one can reasonably suggest that consumers somehow forced BP to cut every possible corner, suborn regulators, violate safety guidelines, and worse. Those decisions were made in BPâ€™s executive offices, and consumers had no say.
â€œIn the end,â€ writes environmental policy professor Thomas Princen, â€œthe idea of consumer sovereignty doesnâ€™t add up. It is a myth convenient for those who would locate responsibility for social and environmental problems on the backs of consumers, absolving those who truly have market power and who write the rules of the game and who benefit the most.â€
Blaming Individuals for Capitalist Destruction
If the idea that consumers are in charge makes little sense for the capitalist economy as a whole, it is completely absurd for the oil industry. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert points out, working people simply donâ€™t count in this system:
Nevertheless, as Michael Dawson writes, whenever mainstream thinkers comment on todayâ€™s social ills, they always â€œblame the little folkâ€
tâ€™s true that producers must sell their products, but the idea that consumers therefore control corporate behaviour is ideology, not fact. Immensely wealthy corporations decide what to produce and how to produce it. They spend billions to promote specific products and to protect their power. They allow us to choose â€“ but only among the narrow range of options that they believe will be profitable.
In the Gulf, BP did what every capitalist corporation does â€“ it kept costs down to keep profits up. Its irresponsible actions were bound to cause a disaster eventually â€“ but if the company had lucked out this time, if the explosion hadnâ€™t happened, BPâ€™s executives and shareholders would have been rewarded for producing offshore oil more cheaply than more cautious competitors. Thatâ€™s the way capitalism works.
The immediate cause of this particular disaster was BPâ€™s greed for short-term profits. The long-term cause, of this and many other disasters, is an irrational grow-or-die economic system that is totally dependent on oil, on â€œthe stuff without which nothing else happens.â€ A system in which private profit always takes precedence over the environment and human lives.
The journalists, pale greens and others who blame individual consumers are trivializing the problem and distracting attention from the social roots of environmental destruction. No matter how sincere they may be, they are making it harder to achieve real solutions.
 Dave Chameides. â€œWhoâ€™s Really to Blame for the BP Oil Spill? We Are.â€ Care2, May 12, 2010.
 Mark Coeckelbergh. â€œWeâ€™re all to blame for the oil spill.â€ Guardian. June 9, 2010.
 Some other examples:
- Whoâ€™s To Blame For The BP Disaster?
- The Bp Oil Spill: Whoâ€™s to Blame? (See comment by â€˜Martin Smithâ€™)
- The Oil spillâ€¦..whoâ€™s to blame?
- BP oil spill â€“ whoâ€™s to blame?
- Breaking Down the BP Gulf Spill Blame Game
 Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth. New York: Rodale, 2006. p. 305
 Mark Perry. â€œConsumer, Not Corporate, â€˜Greedâ€™ Is Ultimately Behind Layoffs.â€ Macinac Center for Public Policy, January 7, 2002.
 Ludwig von Mises. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. p. 21
 James Gustave Speth. The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. p. 62
 Douglas Dowd. Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis. London: Pluto Press, 2009. p. 59
 Michael Lowy. â€œAdvertising Is a â€˜Serious Health Threatâ€™ â€“ to the Environment.â€ Monthly Review, January 2010. p. 20-21
 Michael Dawson. The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. p. 1, 134. See also Dawsonâ€™s excellent website with the same name.
 John Kenneth Galbraith. The Essential Galbraith. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001. p. 35,
 James B. Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks, and Edward N. Wolf. â€œThe World Distribution of Household Wealth.â€ United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, February 2008. p. 7
 Calculation courtesy of Dick Nichols. The eleven are the ten men and one woman from Australia on the Forbes magazine list of the worldâ€™s billionaires. The 800,000 households are the poorest decile (10%) according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
 Jonathon Freedman. â€œDonâ€™t Be Fooled by Europeâ€™s Mood.â€ The Guardian, May 9, 2007.
 Eric Toussaint. Your Money Or Your Life: The Tyranny of Global Finance. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005. p. 34.
 Dawson. The Consumer Trap. p. 144.
 John Bellamy Foster. Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002. p. 101
 David Strahan. The Last Oil Shock. London: John Murray, 2007. p. 116.
 Kenneth A. Gould, David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg. The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, 2008. p. 20, 22
 Dawson. The Consumer Trap. P. 144.
 Thomas Princen. â€œConsumer Sovereignty and Sacrifice: Two Insidious Concepts in the Expansionist Consumer Economy.â€ In Michael Maniates and John M. Meyer, editors, The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. p. 152
 Bob Herbert. â€œMore Than Just an Oil Spill.â€ New York Times, May 21, 2010.
 Dawson. The Consumer Trap. p. 144.