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Buddhist Ethics for a Harm-Free Livelihood: An Open Letter to the CEO of BP

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"The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. ... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living."
--Thich Nat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk

"I had my eyes opened. I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries."
--"Tony Stark," Iron Man

Dear Mr. Hayward:

We have never formally met, but in the fall of 2000 I attended BP's annual shareholder meeting in London at which you -- though not yet CEO -- were present. At the time, I was there to raise concerns over BP's investment in a PetroChina pipeline across the Tibetan plateau, which many individuals of conscience around the world felt would be an environmental and political disaster. The investment, no surprise, went through, despite widespread shareholder concern. And the results, no surprise either, have been pretty much as predicted.

That was an important and exciting year for your company. In a massive makeover, the archaic and somewhat intimidating BP shield morphed into something far fresher and more consumer friendly -- a blooming green and yellow sunflower, indicative of the company's dedication to moving "beyond petroleum." The campaign worked well. Up until last month, when consumers were asked to name the "greenest" oil company, yours continually came out on top. Amazing what a little splash of color can do.

However, those of us who were at that meeting were privy to a very different reality -- namely the admitted fact that your company actually had little intention of truly moving "beyond petroleum." At one point during the meeting, when fielding questions over the level of BP's commitment to alternative energy, the chair of your board -- bizarrely underlit like Dr. Strangelove and seated in a futuristic looking plexiglass pod -- proudly stated: "Just because we have changed our slogan to Beyond Petroleum does not change the fact that our primary function as a company is and will remain the extraction and distribution of hydrocarbons."

Nothing like telling it like it is.

Fast forward ten years. Today, your company's failure to move in any meaningful way towards greener practices, environmental safeguards, and alternative energy sources has directly resulted in what can only be called an unmitigated disaster. A disaster which -- beyond the immediate and long-term environmental repercussions -- represents a far deeper crisis in basic human ethics. The crisis is this, Tony: your livelihood is directly based on the distribution of a substance that poisons, kills, and destroys. And ultimately, in the face of a mounting global crisis of climate change and environmental degradation, for anyone in your industry to continue business as usual is 100-percent morally indefensible. It is beyond time for humanity to get off oil. That change has to start quickly, and it has to start with with people like you.

In the complex web of economic interconnectedness, it is easy to remove responsibility from individual people, since it is rarely one individual who directly causes a disaster like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. It is also easy to point to a company's responsibility to its shareholders and mark quarterly profit as the ultimate measure of appropriate action. It is easy to divorce ethical concerns such as the environment and human rights as secondary to this prime responsibility. It is easy to point to the large global demand for oil and to feel comfortable that your company is supplying that demand and that it is therefore not you who are responsible for the consequences of your poisonous tar, that it is a burden of responsibility we all share as an oil-dependent society.

Yeah, it may be easy to think this way, but it is wrong. You are responsible. You are directly responsible.

Systems are made up of individuals, and individuals have choice. History is full of individuals who in the face of ethical dilemmas chose the higher path. History fondly remembers such Schindlers of years past. Those who continue on with business as usual and therefore become accomplices and instigators of unthinkable destruction are also remembered by history, with quite different names. Quite often they are called traitors.

How will our children, and their children, and their children generations beyond remember us if our greatest defining legacy is that given all the facts we had on the table about the environmental consequences of our actions and our lifestyles, we continued on as if nothing was wrong? More to the point, how will they remember you?

In the Buddhist worldview of my upbringing, the livelihood of a human being must be based on one basic criterion -- do no harm. The more complex the economy of our world becomes -- and the more fragile its environment -- the more vital it is for individuals to personally adopt this ethical outlook and this way of living. When trapped in a system of quarterly profits and immediate demand, individuals of vision must take action and carve a legacy rather than wait for one to be written for them. It is your ethical responsibility, as the CEO of a company that is, as I write, committing unimaginable harm in the oceans and wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico and among its fishing communities, to re-earn the trust of the people of world by changing your company to one that does no harm.

How does this look in the real world? It means a far more aggressive, far more substantive move to alternative energy investment, starting now. Our oil policy can no longer be one of using it until its gone and dropping a few research dollars in place along the way. We need a comprehensive plan to get us off of it. It means calling for a moratorium on offshore drilling. It means shutting down the Atlantis rig in the gulf, which your own internal investigators have concluded is a safety risk.

But more than this, it means adopting the basic worldview that is the only real hope that humanity has -- the fundamental recognition of the fragility and interconnectedness of all life and the compassion for it that is a by-product of that recognition. Only when individuals commit to do no harm can corporations and governments follow suit. Only when you truly grasp that it is not in your best interest as a human being to put other life in harm's way can real change be made.

Every one of us is responsible for our own course in life, and each of us determines our own moral and ethical guidelines. Some of us accept the basic rules of religions without question. Others determine our own version of what is and what is not acceptable in order to help us sleep at night. No one -- yet -- is going to force us to adopt individual ethical and moral standards. It is up to each of us. It is up to you, Tony. A man of your stature has clearly gotten to where he is through hard work, intelligence, and motivation. But as of now, your legacy is washing onto the shores of Louisiana in the form of a complete and total mess.

I personally invite you to be more than that.

Don't be a mess. Do the right thing. And do no harm.

Josh Schrei
May 27, 2010

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