By Rebecca Solnit
Dec 10, 2015
Greed for petroleum has produced plenty of war. War can be defined narrowly, as conflict between nations, or broadly, as large-scale violence in pursuit of gain. This is why so many see the climate movement as a peace movement – especially after the recent massacres in Paris.
In the fossil-fuel era, some oil corporations became powers equal to states, and some states became petroleum corporations in drag, and both were eager to fight horrific wars over resource control. The abuse of power and the destruction go all the way back to the early history of the petroleum industry in particular (though coal and natural gas extraction and industries have plenty of ugly achievements of their own).
Consider that the legitimately elected prime minister of Iran was deposed in a1953 coup because he had nationalized the oil industry. BP wasn’t going to give up its profits without a fight, and the dirty fight was carried out by the United States and Britain. The Iran coup was just one of many interventions in the Middle East driven by oil.
It’s not just war and foreign-backed coups – even the current bout of terrorism can be largely traced back to oil policy. While the 2003 Iraq war is sometimes blamed for the rise of Isis, that invasion was justified as a response to al-Qaida’s 2001 attack on targets in the US and one of al-Qaida’s biggest objections was the US presence in Saudi Arabia before 9/11 – which was also oil-related.
The US presence had been greatly increased after the 1990 war that George Bush the First had pursued, in part to defend Kuwaiti (and to a lesser extent) Saudi petroleum. Iraq had invaded Kuwait partially in fury at Kuwait’s undermining the price of oil.
And, of course, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was led by Bush the Second and Dick Cheney, politicians with deep ties to the petroleum industry. Though the United States lost that war, you might say the US oil companies won it. After years of sanctions, Iraq oil was up for grabs, and they grabbed, and profited and still profit.
I remember participating in a blockade at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, early in the war, when Iraqi crude was coming to its processing unit. People have died in oil wars, and they’ve died of the toxicity of oil extraction, refinement and use. Sometimes the two are hard to separate.
In 1995, Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the military of that country, who were defending the oil industry, notably Royal Dutch Shell. Oil refining is a nasty business, another kind of war, one that has poisoned the people of Richmond, the people around the mega-refinery complexes that get called Cancer Alley on the US Gulf coast and those in many other places where refineries are located.
Recognizing that should give more impetus to the climate change conference and the climate change movement.
Whether the attackers in Paris had the climate conference in their sights is not clear, but the conference participants and the activists outside should have the oil wars in their own. Because someday we must be able to look back on this era as one of inhuman corporate powers and destructive pursuit and use of fossil energy. Able to look back because we have moved on.
Extraction is also a filthy process. Then comes transport, complete with oil spills on land, in rivers and at sea as the stuff gets transported in trucks, trains, pipelines and tankers. This is followed by health problems from both the accidentally spilled crude, the byproducts such as refinery emissions and the end-use emissions from automobiles and power plants.
Environmental devastation is a standard part of fossil fuel extraction, from the coal country of Appalachia to the oil-ravaged Niger delta of Nigeria. You could call it a war against nature. I’ve seen it, seen pelicans drenched in oil, gobs of the stuff washed up on the shores of Louisiana after the 2010 BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, seen the monstrous industrial infrastructure for petroleum production in what was Alaskan Arctic wilderness, seen the young men and women who came home wounded in body and spirit from the oil wars.
And the chaos of climate change will create resource wars, mass refugee populations, famine, increased disasters from firestorms to heatwaves to floods to desertification. It’s not a wild theory at this point. “Climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world, yet what we also know is that severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram”, President Obama said earlier this year.
The terrorist attacks in Paris, apparently driven by Daesh/Isis, bring the question of fossil-fuel wars up to the present. The incidents drew more attention to the fact that the civil war in Syria is in part a climate change-driven war. Several years of extreme drought, as we all now know, drove farmers off their land. And Isis derives a great deal of revenue from fossil fuel. But what hasn’t been said so often is that the chaos unleashed by the 2003 Iraq war is what generated Isis. So it’s three kinds of fossil-fuel-driven war at once; the pursuit of fossil fuel produced the instability both politically and ecologically and fossil fuel partially bankrolls it.
The climate movement is a peace movement in part because it’s trying to undermine the motives these kinds of war. But also it’s trying to dismantle the warmakers. Imagine a world in which the gigantic oil companies withered in size or altogether ceased to exist. It’s hard to know where to start with how different that would be. Oil Change International documents the $326m spent on influencing the US Congress in 2013-2014. You know that warps policy, generating among other things, Oil Change notes, $33.7bn in annual subsidies to that industry, a more than hundredfold return on investment.
Imagine if foreign policy weren’t driven by the desire to secure supplies of petroleum and by the influence of oil companies. Right now two-thirds of US citizens want a binding climate treaty, and the Republicans in Congress are making it clear they want to sabotage any such treaty, ahead of time if possible. Fossil fuel is a major part of how a supposedly representive democracy has ended up with such a deeply unrepresentative government.
The climate-change denial that the oil companies bankrolled was, as recentrevelation about Exxon reveal, strategic protection of resources and sabotage of international agreements. Protecting those interests has become a reflexive position of Republicans and one which Democrats are at best timorous about opposing.
To define the climate movement as a peace movement means defining the wars it seeks to end. They have been filthy, brutal and corrosive. We can do better. We can move past fossil fuel. We can take back power, both political and literal energy-generating power, from these inhuman entities that have dominated much of the earth for a century. We, civil society, we who get poisoned and killed and we who have built a great and powerful climate movement, can make peace, with our energy sources, with our planet and with each other.
There is no monopoly on sun and wind, so it’s hard to imagine wars over those resources. The dispersal of power generation as wind and sun and other renewable sources replace fossil fuels correlates nicely to the dispersal of political power –which is what we mean by democracy.
Recognizing that should give more impetus to the climate change conference and the climate change movement. Whether the attackers in Paris had the climate conference in their sights is not clear, but the conference participants and the activists outside should have the oil wars in their own. Because someday we must be able to look back on this era as one of inhuman corporate powers and destructive pursuit and use of fossil energy.
Able to look back because we have moved on.