I wanted a longer title for this post but that was the best I could do.
I agree with you that our economy, infrastructure and many more aspects of our lives are now made up of increasingly complex systems and tight coupling which means less and less room for error, so that decisions whether good or bad have far reaching and more and more often global implications as a result. It seems to me, however, that you can only punish a specific behavior and demand accountability after the fact unless you are going to get into the area of trying to guess how corporations--and the people who run them--might behave in the future. I wouldn't want to see additional regulation imposed (which sometimes happens in a case like this just so leaders can say they are "doing something") until we gain an understanding of what regulations already exist that were intentionally broken or carelessly overlooked. That would entail the truth being exposed fully and since we are dealing with both a multinational corporation and the government, that seems unlikely. It's possible that a rule is currently on the books that, had it been followed, would have prevented the disaster. No amount of rules and regulations matter if they are not followed, enforced, or if what has been created is unenforceable for some reason.
You said, "we humans don’t always think through (and rarely completely) our actions", which I would agree with. But I also say it is impossible to predict ALL the results of our actions even with the most sincere effort.
I think that 20 billion dollars (if we see that amount eventually paid into the escrow account as has been promised) would be attention getting to most corporations, along with the tarnished brand and negative publicity. Making the consequences for the spill so strong as to cause the bankruptcy of the company, however would prohibit them funding the cleanup and leave their pensioners, most of whom have done nothing wrong, paying the price for something out of their control. The same could be said for the American taxpayer, who would be left to foot the bill, without the company. I say this even though I have not purchased gas from BP since the spill, not out of any decision to officially boycott, but rather out of a feeling that I cannot in good conscience do business with them. (Isn't that Capitalism at work, the consumer punishing the company for their carelessness without regulation?) I would however, like you to outline a solution that you would like to see, so that I have a better understanding of exactly what action; regulation, legislation, fines, etc. you would think appropriate.
Don't we really have two problems here? The one is the immediate problem of how to deal with the spill (a painful symptom of our long term disease; selfishness, as you so rightly point out), make drilling for oil safer, and discourage this kind of reckless behavior in the future. The other is the long term problem of our reliance on oil. But they cannot be compared. One is the equivalent of buying groceries this week to feed Jr. and the other is how to save for college so he is eventually educated and self reliant. Don't we need to find out how to do both at the same time? Neither of the objectives is wrong (unless we continue to let Jr. gorge himself on chips and soda, taking no action while he is putting his long term health at risk). Because of the complexity and oil dependency of the economy, no, the world we've created, change will take some time. You used the example of the smoker. Imagine that in 1945 you had told someone that in the future smoking would be banned in most public places and generally be frowned upon by society. They wouldn't have been able to conceive such a thing, yet here we are. Change is possible with enough education, but it will take time.
Have we ignored the reality of our predicament far too long? Yes. Change is hard, massive change massively so. People are change resistant, especially when they can't quite see how new ideas are going to work. So we choose not to see the long term results of our actions. Denial is costly in most areas of life, yet is far too often a major component in the decision making process. We have several complicated problems at play here; an economy built on a resource that is costly to our nation (and the world) in many ways; the ethics or lack thereof of the major players involved; and what I suspect is a very flawed decision making process in the upper echelons of the company at fault. We often see seemingly intelligent leaders make ridiculously stupid decisions even when they know better, for many reasons other than greed. (See note.)
I agree with you that we should ADAPT and reexamine our WANTS/NEEDS because as you suggest we have lost the ability to tell the difference. Just as too many lived the illusion of prosperity on borrowed money and learned that lesson the hard way over the past two years, this spill is a visible lesson in the cost of our mistakes and missteps on many levels.
Note: If the reader is interested in learning more about HOW and WHY leaders and their decision making teams make the choices they do, then Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article entitled "High Stakes Decision Making: The Lessons of Mt. Everest, may be of interest. Also check out the blog of Professor Michael Roberto.