This is why the leak in the Gulf may make it less likely that Mr Obama will get the environmental legislation he desires. Any bill with the slightest austerity or self-sacrifice has an uphill climb, particularly in this economy. Voters will accept the “new” environmentalism (focused on climate change) only as long as it is free. The temptation has been to pay for the new environmentalism by gutting the old environmentalism (focused on visible pollution).
Here the energy industry in recent decades offers certain parallels to the finance industry. Structured finance on the one hand, a green economy on the other – both innovations involve trade-offs. But the modern voter, like the modern consumer and the modern investor, is unsatisfied with trade-offs. He wants windfalls.
So innovations are presented as pure gains. This is done by rounding risk down, by assuming that hitherto rare events – a housing crash on the one hand, a drilling leak on the other – are impossible. You pay for the new efficiencies by zeroing out protections from old-fashioned risks. The risk of a spill is taken off balance sheet. Until the inevitable screw-up, it looks like a bonanza attained through the brilliance of our leaders.
At a Senate hearing in November, Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, said we had to measure the dangers of oil spills against the gains from oil: victory in the second world war, the industrial revolution, the automobile. Ms Landrieu is the largest recipient in Congress of donations from BP and its employees (just as Mr Obama is the largest recipient among all US politicians), so one might take her views with a grain of salt. She has been mocked this week. But her larger point bears listening to. After so many forests have been felled and hillocks dynamited to serve the US addiction to oil and automobiles, it would be unwise to think that the contamination of a few salt marshes is going to alter energy policy in the long term.