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The Full Costs of BP's Mistakes: The Advent of 'Avatar Environmentalists'

Six years ago, key leaders at BP invited me to visit them at their headquarters. I keep vivid impressions of this largest employer in England. BP executives were everywhere, from the libraries to nearly every place I dined. They had their own articulate drivers to take me around with public safety standards that went way beyond a Texas seatbelt.

What went so wrong, then, in a mere 72 months, the time it takes from birth to reach first grade? And why is BP's CEO Haywood seeking his boat to escape, and a time to get back his life?

BP's stated concern at the time was "Dr. Piasecki, what happens to an oil giant when it reaches over 300 billion in revenue?" BP knew at the time I had finished my book on the 600 largest corporations in the world, and they earnestly wanted to test if size matters. But in retrospect, these were the wrong questions.

After the last weeks watching the largest environmental disaster in American history unfold, I feel the social wake of the disaster grows in consequence each week. Yet most of the focus is on the consequences to President Obama and BP's CEO, Tony Haywood. Sure enough the firm has lost half its market cap, but what has society gained, and what has the world lost? Is not balance the right question?

William Blake once wrote that he could see the whole world in grain of sand. To be more accurate, I believe the world is now seeing this disaster as a first glimpse into the future of corporate governance. Future BPs will need to calculate their corporate risks and rewards in a much more visible way, not only with close regulators and friendly governments. This is why I believe the spill will over time create a new kind of corporate oversight from citizens. This is not a matter only of directors and boards.

First, some more bad news. This single BP oil disaster will add to the worst tensions in our world right now, the growing hatreds between the East and the West, between scientists and humanists, between advocates for sustainability and the strong stage of corporate apologists. That is a real costly consequence of BP's public arrogance and inability to clean up.

From this encounter between big oil, the Gulf of Mexico, our pelicans and our fisherman, I predict a new kind of global environmentalist -- Avatar Environmentalists -- to evolve rapidly. For the first time since the founding of most nation states, the court of public opinion on risk may outweigh the court of law. Like the 20 billion dollar reserve escrow inflicted by Obama on BP, this is unprecedented.

Of course, avatars have been part of the human imagination long before the record breaking movie made them fashionable again. They once roamed the fantasies of Indian, Norse, Irish and native American folktales.

But after BP's mishap of massive proportions, I believe there are now many new age environmentalists growing as big in their reach as James Cameron's billion-dollar film "Avatar." These new greens will work through the night as we sleep. They will arm themselves with new weapons and new strategic friends in the media and in the developing regions of the world like India and China and Africa. EPA and the mining and minerals scientists will seem puny in contrast to the giants surfing this salty wave that is still mounting.

For over 40 years, environmentalists have fought their battles in a rather focused and professional fashion, hairsplitting over rules, focusing their attacks on known rulers. But an avatar works in reshaping our expectations and imagination, the very core of all cultures. They attack our appetites.

The new post-BP environmentalist, I predict, will stand taller than those from Earth Day and from Yale and Harvard. They will be more immediate, and less technical. They will be pumped up on the steroids of Hollywood, mass media, and twitter more than the schooling of MBAs. And they will attract massive global audiences like Lady GaGa attracts teens.

This new post-oil spill advocate will have a greater forum now, full of the potential of plain truths. This may prove the real cost of the oil spill. Take, for example, the issue of what has happened to the public's imagination regarding massive development projects. Have we lost our appetite?

This BP spill is not only hurting the oil and the energy sector. This affects all business, all development. Think of the many shrimp fisherman in the gulf. Think of the hotel occupancy-based businesses, from entertainment in the Gulf to tourism around the beach, that are now being dragged down like a pelican trying to launch after being drenched in oil.

What has happened in the Gulf is a sea change, that travels more like a tsunami than a regional storm.

Folks from the Middle East to land-locked middle America to the intelligentsia of Africa are beginning to ask: What is enough oil? How can we better clean up the consequences of offshore oil? How can we readjust our development expectations in this swift and severe world so we get to go where we want without such a black, intractable, coast-long stain?

These are being asked a good hundred years after the massive discoveries of oil at Spindletop, Texas. Yet strong questions at the right time have always altered world history.

Bruce Piasecki is the president of the AHC Group, a management consulting firm since 1981. His seven books define new directions in capitalism and reshape the purposes of corporate strategy today.

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