by John Bacher
Earth Island Journal, Spring 2002
Oil 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 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
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 human rights 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
With the sole exception of Myanmar, these super-oil dictatorships
have maintained the most wide-ranging religious persecution of
the post-Cold War period. Dissidents in the super-oil 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
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. I t is also unique
in having a constitutional government and a long record of multiparty
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
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
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
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
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
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 infiltrators into
Kashmir, the scheming for an authoritarian Slavic Federation,
nuclear proliferation, the plotting by terrorists to destroy the
Arab-lsraeli 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
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 US' 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 Flonda defense
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 ClA-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
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
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
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 occasionally 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.
John Bacher is chair of the Magra River Restoration Council,
past president of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society.