consumption is seen by most citizens of affluent democracies as an
innocent, almost wholesome activity. Although oil sometimes receives
negative attention - as it did during the Gulf War and following the Exxon Valdez disaster - burning oil as a fuel is seldom viewed as one of the deadly
sins. Smoking, littering and illegal drug use all receive more public
censure than filling the tank.
The use of oil is generally associated with progress and comfort. Despite traffic jams, breakdowns and deadly accidents, driving is commonly viewed as a pleasurable activity.
Although slick automobile ads equate personal motor transport with the Statue of Liberty, the reality is that the power of oil poses a conflict with freedom in a democratic society.
How Oil Sustains Dictatorships
Oil is critical to the support of dictatorships since it provides the most abundant form of wealth for repressive governments - income that does not have to be obtained through taxation. The collection of taxes generally compels a higher degree of consent from citizens than the misappropriation of oil revenues.
When big money is needed for the repressive apparatus of despotism, warrior dictators in the Middle East need not fear taxpayer revolt because their military schemes are founded on their control over oil.
All dictatorships in the Middle East are supported in some way by oil revenues. Egypt’s repressive government receives a third of its budget from oil. Syria, a significant oil producer in its own right, is further helped by oil superpower Iran in its sponsorship of terrorism to derail the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
While repression is in retreat in the post-Cold War world, the remaining havens of dictatorship are concentrated in oil-rich states, many of which export war and repression beyond their borders.
Nominal democracies such as Mexico, Colombia, Russia and Peru are aided in their repressive power by oil exports.
Of the five Persian Gulf states that each have more than 70 billion barrels of oil, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - only Kuwait is rated as “partially free” by the nonpartisan US humanrights group Freedom House [www.freedomhouse.org]. The rest are ranked as “not free” (the Freedom House designation for absolute dictatorships).
Freedom House’s impartiality is shown by its consistently low ranking for Saudi Arabia, a close US ally. Since Freedom House began its annual national rankings for political rights and civil liberties in 1955, Saudi Arabia has consistently been given the worst ratings. The Saudi reserves of 258 billion barrels amount to more than double those of any other country. The United Arab Emirates, another close ally in the pro-US Gulf Cooperation Council, is also rated by Freedom House as “not free.”
Other significant oil producers in the rogue’s galley of despotic states include Iraq, Equatorial Guinea, China, Turkmenistan, Sudan, Syria, Libya and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Only four of the 16 lowest-ranked countries are not tied to the vortex of oil-financed oppression.
With the sole exception of Myanmar, these superoil dictatorships have maintained the most wide-ranging religious persecution of the post-Cold War period. Dissidents in the superoil states are threatened by the world’s most ruthless security services.
All these tyrannies continue to practice capital punishment and use torture. Some make mutilations part of normal sentencing. Saudi Arabia’s religious intolerance falls harshly on Christians and Shiite Muslims. Iraq’s secular Arab nationalist government has brutally relocated many Shiite civilians, driven thousands into exile and desecrated the faith’s most holy shrines. In Iran, the Shiite theocracy has exhibited extreme repression against religious minorities.
There are several Islamic majority semi-democracies that lack oil - Albania, Bosnia, Bangladesh, the Kyrgyz Republic and Turkey. All have better democratic ratings than Kuwait, the most liberal Islamic-majority state that exports oil. In Albania and Bangladesh, governments have been peacefully changed through free elections.
Morocco, an oil-less semi-democratic state, is the only predominately Arabic-speaking nation that has developed a modern fiscal system with transparent accounting of public revenues. It is also unique in having a constitutional government and a long record of multiparty elections.
Moving from the Middle East to Asia, we find that all four Asian full democracies on Freedom House’s 1998 list were oil importers, while every “not free” country was an oil exporter in 1992. All listed counties that were oil exporters in 1992 had failed to democratize by the beginning of 1998.
Oil in Latin America
In Latin America, most mainland states that are now rated as only “partially free” - Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and Mexico - have significant oil reserves. All these countries have seen violent struggles between native communities and oil development interests, involving horrendous human rights violations by private armies and death squads.
Latin America’s full democracies - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Panama - are all oil importers. In oil-less Costa Rica, the most durable democracy in the region, environmentalists successfully routed an oil pipeline away from a threatened rainforest.
Throughout Latin America, nations that have experienced the greatest success in eliminating poverty, protecting the environment and establishing democracy lack significant oil wealth. They achieve higher levels of human development and notably better results in public health and education. The power of the military, where it has not been abolished altogether (as in Panama and Costa Rica), is gradually being reduced.
Chile’s restored democracy recently abolished compulsory military service, and it was the first Latin American country to elect Green Party representatives to the national legislature and cabinet.
Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile were the region’s only relatively durable democracies for most of the 20th century. Their success in pioneering social welfare was based on taxation, not on oil wealth. Today, fully democratic Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina and Panama have better United Nations “Human Development Index” rankings than oil-rich Venezuela.
The oil-less democracies of Latin America are developing impressive green strategies to reduce global warming. Costa Rica is implementing one of the world’s most ambitious strategies for greenhouse gas reduction. By 2010, it plans to produce all of its electricity from renewable power. Costa Rica has already imposed a 15 percent carbon tax on fossil fuels. One third of its revenues supports tree planting by farmers. Costa Rica has certified some 16 million tons of carbon credits through the Chicago Board of Trade, which will generate $300 million in revenues to protect 1.25 million acres of tropical rainforest.
Argentina plans to spend $700 million for reforestation projects. Argentina’s announcement that it would not delay action on global warming until industrial countries acted was widely hailed by environmental groups. It marked a clear break with past claims by developing counties that increased carbon emissions were needed for economic growth.
Oil Royalties: Barriers to Freedom
Petroleum exports are simply the most lucrative form of wealth stemming from geographic advantage rather than from hard work and creativity. Royalties from oil extraction do not dominate the economies of the world’s successful capitalist countries.
Royalties are not the basis for new technologies such as the microchip, solar power and the electronic information industries. Royalties dominate the economies of the most repressive tyrannies of the world. Not one of the 16 Freedom House petrotyrannies is an engine of new science or technology. Oil does not drive the capitalist dream machine, protect it from risk or lubricate its liquidity. Freedom, more than oil, serves to make the world go ‘round.
The oil interests that dominate dictatorships have considerable influence in the democratic world. Oil’s uneven distribution forces most industrialized nations to import petroleum. More evenly distributed coal and natural gas have never been the basis of a successful cartel such as OPEC.
There are currently 57 free states in the world, among them only three are net-oil exporters. One, Venezuela, has a shaky democracy, being rated by Freedom House as only “partly free.” The only two stable, full democracies are Norway and Trinidad & Tobago.
Democracy in Norway is a product of a long struggle by the country’s peasant, labor and co-operative movements, which could not be bought off by a share in oil wealth. Norway and Sweden lead the world in the high percentage of parliamentary seats held by women.
When it achieved independence from Great Britain in 1962, Trinidad’s political elite could have used its position as an oil exporter to cling to power. The fact that the country’s elite did not succumb to this temptation is a sign of their commitment to democracy.
Democracies vs. Oil
The great threat at the dawn of the new millennium is not a “clash of civilizations” based on ancient religious teachings that stress humility in the face of the awesome powers of the universe. The uppermost dangers are posed by dictatorships kept alive by vast oil wealth.
The US and its allies may boast of superiority in high-tech weapons, but their economies are vulnerable to repressive rulers who control oil. The paralyzing grip that securing access to cheap oil has on democratic politics is understandable. Voters tend to reward politicians for low inflation, high employment and booming economic growth. The easiest way to do this is to have cheap oil. This causes US bowing and scraping to the Persian Gulf dictatorships.
Since 1973, business cycles have echoed the patterns of oil prices. The global economic boom from 1993 to 1999, originally thought to be the product of technological innovations like the Internet, is now understood as the product of an oil glut and the breakdown of OPEC discipline.
In their cramped focus on access to oil as the badge of US power, strategic studies experts ignore how this has blinded the US to the more critical goals of a democratic peace that would eliminate the need for continued massive military expenditures and facilitate more secure business investments. Such an agenda involves the international spread of the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and discouraging the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
These more important foreign policy objectives are blunted by goals like selling cars to China, stretching oil lines across Afghanistan, petroleum development in Chad or Cameroon and the search for oil in the Amazon rainforest. All of these narrow, commercial goals that benefit the oil industry also clash with efforts to halt global warming.
Democratic power is best enhanced by cutting off the biggest form of tribute from democracies to dictatorships - payments for oil. The fortunes of Osama bin Laden, funds for inflitrators into Kashmir, the scheming for an authoritarian Slavic Federation, nuclear proliferation, the plotting by terrorists to destroy the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the September 11 attacks are all paid for eventually by democracies through their purchase of oil.
Osama bin Laden and UNOCAL
Osama bin Laden’s skill as a mediator enhances his stature among authoritarian extremists, making him the virtual ruler of petrotyrannies.
Following the bombing of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August, 1998, bin Laden conveniently vanished from his former Afghan base. Apart from frustrating American revenge, he sought to reduce the Taliban’s difficulties as they were negotiating with American investors to build an oil pipeline across Afghanistan from Central Asia to Pakistan.
Ultimately, bin Laden’s moves to help the Taliban in its negotiations with the US oil company UNOCAL were in vain. The Clinton administration shut the door on the UNOCAL deal as part of a growing concern that international terrorism, human-rights violations and the drug trade should take priority over outdated obsessions about access to petroleum.
The American Petroleum Institute denounced this evolving human-security orientation in a study that identified 35 counties in which US policy banned companies from investing in strategic petroleum industries, accounting for 10 percent of world oil production.
Osama bin Laden’s success as the man who defies America is understandable only in light of the support that he gets from autocracies that have great oil wealth. The bold acts of anti-American terrorism associated with his name have served to create a sensationalist unity that covers up the profound differences among the various groups and states allied with his cause.
What is remarkable about bin Laden is the global nature of his role in sustaining and spreading petrotyranny - from the Horn of Africa and Central Asia to the depths of India’s forests in Assam and the mountains of Kashmir.
Petrotyranny vs. the Greens
In cultures around the world, respect for the sacredness of the Earth is clashing with a militaristic and toxic oil culture. The strongest foe of these petrotyrannies is the global environmental movement - the leading force in the recent wave of freedom.
The struggle between oil companies and their environmental critics in North America is a battle between giants. Massive oil corporations with considerable wealth and power clash with vigilant environmental groups having millions of dedicated members.
Oil companies and enviros keep watch on each other very carefully. Greens pioneered the use of web pages; oil corporations quickly followed suit.
The world almost witnessed the elimination of oil in the early stages of the Cold War under the leadership of Democratic President Harry Truman. Questioning the need to move away from oil began in 1948, the start of the USA’s chronic condition of becoming a net oil importer.
During Truman’s formidable leadership, it appeared that green power would be allied to US struggles against the oil-financed Communist block. During his presidency, southern public housing projects commonly began to use solar power. The federal government also used solar water heating installations in Florida defense facilities.
At the start of the Cold War, the centers of the world’s growing solar industry were focused exclusively in the democratic free world - in the US, Japan, Australia and Israel.
Miami was one of the leading centers for development of solar water heaters, where they outsold electric and gas competitors by two to one. The Rose Elementary School, built in Tucson, Arizona, in 1948, became the world’s first solar-heated public building. The Truman-commissioned report, Resources for Freedom, advocated 13 million solar-heated US homes by 1975.
Republicans In; Solar Out
Truman’s interest in alternative energy was not shared by his Republican successor. Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was closely linked to the oil and automotive industries. The confirmation hearings for installing former auto executive “Engine Charlie” Wilson as secretary of defense gave rise to the memorable slogan: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA.”
The Republicans turned the thrust of US policy away from Truman’s social democratic crusade for freedom, toward an oil industry-dominated strategy for corporate control. This new thrust emerged in CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala and Iran, and in the support of an oil dictatorship in Venezuela (which was overthrown in 1958 in a nonviolent coup supported by massive popular demonstrations).
The collusion between the US government and repression abroad was advantageous for US oil corporations but disastrous for stable international security. The CIA coup in Iran set back democratic movements in the Middle East, encouraging the later rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The might of the US oil companies inspired a revolt among NATO allies in Europe, with France eventually pulling out of the military command of NATO. Latin America, in response to the US-plotted Guatemala coup, became stridently anti-American.
Blinded by the power of oil wealth, the Eisenhower-Nixon administration disregarded human rights in foreign policy, a strategic blunder that would be repeated later in the Nixon-Ford administration guided by Henry Kissinger.
The Republicans of the 1950s had no interest in solar power. Despite the revolutionary discoveries by Bell Telephone Labs in 1956, which set the basis for current models of silicon-based photovoltaic cells, no government efforts were made to commercialize this technology.
The Reagan administration put an end to President Jimmy Carter’s solar-power tax credits and subsidies for energy conservation. Reagan refused to staff or fund Carter’s Solar Bank, ended programs to increase energy efficiency in refrigerators and air conditioners, eased fuel-efficiency standards, slashed funding for renewable energy research by 90 percent and removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof.
After 12 years of Republican administrations, Democratic President Bill Clinton returned to the solar policies of Carter. During his first two years in office, there was a 35 percent increase in funding for research and development of photovoltaics. Clinton’s attempt to implement an energy tax was watered down to a four-cent-a-gallon increase on the gasoline tax. Republicans fought back by exempting sport utility vehicles from meeting fuel-efficiency standards.
The Clinton administration viewed the development of renewable energy as a critical battleground in its quest for a democratic peace. It turned the vast military labs of the Cold War toward researching renewable technologies to end dependence on foreign oil. Clinton’s Clean-Car Initiative was intended to redirect the $3 billion being spent on weapons development into creating vehicles that did not require oil. Clinton budgeted $6.3 billion for US-made clean-energy technologies and set a goal of 1 million solar roofs by 2010.
The green civil society that blossomed during the Carter administration survived the assaults of the hostile Reagan presidency. Even in the state of Texas, its capital city, Austin, has become an island of renewable power, where decomposing sewage generates 800 kw while reducing methane emissions. Photovoltaic panels power Austin’s homes and traffic lights. Sacramento, Calif., has installed solar water heaters in 14,000 homes and hosts the world’s biggest solar powerplant, generating 2 MW of electric power.
Many US communities have become remarkably oil-free. Soldiers Grove, Wis., a village of 600, has become the first US community outside of an Indian reservation to obtain all its electricity from solar conversions. Northwest Missouri State University became the first university to free itself of fossil fuels.
An archipelago of green-energy outposts - Indian reservations, Amish communities and university towns - is surrounded by a sea of oil money and power. Outside such green ghettos, renewable technologies are simply unheard of in a culture where views are shaped by a corporate-owned mass media heavily influenced by the energy industry.
Unlike transitional European giants such as BP and Shell, major US-owned oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Texaco, continue to deny the existence of global warming. Their fundamentalist oil-worshipping faith even survived a November 1998 corporate exodus from the pro-oil Global Climate Coalition lead by Ford, General Motors, Boeing, Enron, Lockheed Martin, 3M and United Technologies.
Although driving is considered to be an American right more fundamental than the right to clean air and water, its power rests essentially on a perpetually manufactured consent. Its unspoken restrictions on freedom are so strong that several television networks have not permitted the airing of paid anti-car advertisements from environmental organizations.
The strength of the oil lobby is best revealed by the fact that US fuel-efficiency standards are still weaker than those of Japan and Europe. Much of the credit goes to the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, the lobbying group created by the oil and automotive industries to fight tougher fuel-efficiency rules.
Although the oil and auto industries ocassionally clash - with car makers taking more environmentally appropriate stands on issues such as toxic fuel additives - collusion between the two corporate giants in opposing greener cars and tougher environmental regulation is more typical behavior.
Increasing the affordability of solar power is critical to phasing out fossil fuels. Politicians in Congress who are allied to oil interests understand this quite well - in a negative sense.
The successful battle to keep oil drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its two complementary Canadian national parks shows that, in a fully democratic society, oil power ultimately loses when confronted by a strong environmental movement.
The deadly trinity of oil, war and dictatorship presents the greatest challenge to humanity at the start of the new millennium. Fortunately, with conservation and by replacing fossil fuels and nuclear energy with renewables, it is possible to foster instead a holy trinity of peace, human rights and environmental sustainability.
Bush’s Petrodollar Conflict
There is a flip-side to the oil equation that Big Oil and the White House would like to keep hidden: the US money that flows to foreign Petrotyrannies that is reinvested in the US economy.
Saudi billionaires have invested an astonishing $600 billion in the US economy - in banks, defense, telecommunications, shopping malls and real estate. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has invested nearly $10 billion in Citigroup and nearly $1 billion in AOL Time Warner.
If these Middle East billionaires suddenly decided to “disinvest” in the US, the impact on the US economy would be devastating.
The $18 billion Carlyse Group handles investments for the bin Laden family and also pays former President George H.W. Bush to represent its defense investments.
As the Center for Public Integrity notes, this means that “George W. Bush could, some day, benefit financially from his own administration’s decisions, through his father’s investments.”
John Bacher is chair of the Niagra River Restoration Council, past president of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. Petrotyranny is available from Science for Peace [122 Hilton Ave., Toronto, M5R 3E7, Canada. $29.95 plus postage].
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