Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Restorative Justice and the BP Catastrophe

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

The BP disaster demands justice.  People are looking for asses to kick, ways to make BP–or the government—pay for their failures.  Some have argued that we are all to blame because we use fossil fuels. Others argue that the oil industry is solely liable because they were negligent, under-prepared and greedy. These are all demands for a kind of justice that requires retribution. Punish the perps. I share the rage but I think this catastrophe calls for another larger kind of justice. Restorative Justice.

Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that “emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by unjust behavior.

The focus of restorative justice is to heal relationships, and make the victim whole. In the case of the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf the list of victims (or future plaintiffs, if you will) is long. The Ocean herself, all the sea creatures, the residents of the Gulf, and future generations, have suffered unspeakable damage from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Restorative justice would assign blame as a way to allocate responsibility for the actions necessary to restore the environment, to restore all the relationships that are woven into the Ocean and coast. All of them.

Many key voices have called for the precautionary principle to be employed so that something like this never happens again.  Essentially the principle is an ethic of refraining from doing harm.  It is another expression of the Golden Rule that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”   This ethic is reflected in the concept of Restorative Justice.  How should we behave when the damage has already happened?  First we apply the precautionary principle to prevent any more harm and then we restore the environment so the cascade of damage can be stopped.

Our work following the 1998 Wingspread Conference on the precautionary principle emphasized the necessity of reversing the burden of proof. Moving it from the public–who must prove harm before something can be stopped–to the proponent of an activity–who must demonstrate safety before something can begin. Another way of expressing the idea of reversing the burden of proof is “the polluter pays.”

What are they paying for? In restorative justice they are funding the work necessary to restore the environment, to restore the health of the ocean, and to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf. Retribution is an inadequate remedy for an injustice of this magnitude. There isn’t enough money in the world to punish all who are culpable. Nor is there enough money in the world to restore the Ocean to health. But if we devote all resources necessary—not just money—to preventing any further harm and to restoring all the relationships that have been damaged we have a better chance of achieving real justice.


  1. Laura Steiman says:

    We are all connected so we are all responsible, each to each. From those with the greatest resources must come the greatest responses, to heal and make things right.

  2. Though there are some far more responsible for the Gulf disaster than others, BP and other oil companies, more than the government, the government more than private citizens, citizens of the US more than citizens of under developed countries, etc. it seems to me that it is unjust for anyone to withhold anything they can offer that might restore the ocean and all its creatures. Surely there is a cosmic or universal justice that calls each of us and everyone of us to offer everything we can without inhibition at such a time. It is just to spend all energies and resources on behalf of healing.

  3. Laura Steiman says:

    BP is at fault but that does not exonerate the rest of us from responsiblity for changing our behaviour around continuing the excessive use of fossil fuels and finding solutions that represent a balanced and more respectful relationship with the Earth and all of its inhabitants, right from the top of the food chain to the bottom. As the twelve steps programs say, “Half measures achieve nothing” we must change the very core of our perspective on that relationship–and for that the religions and particularly Christianity have a significant responsibility. Are we as Human beings truly the be all and end all of creation, the very image of God for whom all else has been created to use and dominate? Or are we a part of a wonderful circle of life–only part like everything else in the circle–whose responsibility is to maintain the balance and show respect for all the rest? All of these questions are central to the BP disaster and to the other Earth-damaging outcomes of our fueled greed. Churches, Christians, Corporations, all have a part to play in finding the balance and making right what has gone so tragically wrong.