Image credit: urbangarden, used under Creative Commons license.
Oil, politics, protest and economics are big news right now. Mike already explored how Colonel Gaddafi benefits from The West's oil addiction, Matt explained how peak oil contributed to Egyptian unrest, and Brian reported on claims that Middle East unrest would boost calls for clean energy. All this got me thinking, however. If change in the world's oil states provides an impetus for us to get off oil, what happens to the (hopefully) newly democratic states once their main source of revenue disappears? And do we in the West—having propped up oil dictators for decades—have a responsibility to the Middle East to help them develop an alternative path? Oil Producers are Dependent Too
This was a question I posed to my fellow TreeHuggers. After all, as countless lessons in history have taught us, one thing that fledgling democracies can ill afford is a sudden economic shock or cultural upheaval. If we start to wean ourselves off oil, isn't there a danger we leave the reformed yet still forming new powers-that-be in the Middle East hanging without a lifeline?
Should & Can the West Help Forge Clean Energy Paths Abroad Too?
It's not exactly news to say that The West has helped to prop up and fund countless dictators from Mubarak to Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein in the name of cheap oil and temporary stability. To that end, it seems to me that there's a moral imperative for us not just to kick the oil habit, but to also help those who have been supplying our addiction to forge a different path. This is not just an altruistic concern either—any drug addict will tell you that getting clean is a whole lot easier if your dealer isn't dealing any more. But my fellow TreeHuggers seemed to think my concerns were overblown.
Oil Money is a Poor Spreader of Wealth
When I broached this topic with Brian, he rightly pointed out that oil may have made a few people very rich, but in most nations it is hardly a universal blessing on the general population:
"It is my understanding that in the oil-based economies of the Middle East and N. Africa, very few people actually benefit from the oil revenue relative to the wealth generated—it is notoriously consolidated at the top in oil plutocracies in places like Nigeria, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. (Which is why the latter just issued nationwide raises, to preempt an inequality-fueled uprising).
After a successful democratic revolution, hopefully that would even out, but oil remains notorious for being a poor 'spreader of wealth' or what have you. Which is why i'm not too concerned that a move away from oil would cripple these nations' economies."
Oil Supports the Status Quo
This sentiment was echoed by Matthew, who further pointed out that the oil industry itself has been a huge force for maintaining these regimes—so kicking our habit could actually be the biggest thing we can do to undermine old power structures and generate social change:
It's not impossible to more equitably distribute oil wealth, as the experience of Statoil in Norway has shown, but unfortunately that's pretty much the exception to the rule. Perhaps the new governments that form will embrace that model over the existing ones. In Egypt the state oil company ordered employees out to protest in support of Mubarak, so it's a definitely uphill battle.
Oil Crisis? Oil opportunity?
Another point worth mentioning is that oil price hikes may cause a crisis for consumers, but they are a boon to producers. So if peak oil proves to be the threat it may well turn out to be, and given that a complete move away from oil is at the very least decades away, there is also good reason to believe that oil producing states—whether democratic or not—will continue to enjoy high revenues for some time to come. As Brian put it: "Any such green revolution is years away, and we'll likely suck down all the oil they've got at exorbitant prices before it happens..."
Energy Independence or Interdependence?
Nevertheless, there is still an important underlying topic here. The dictatorships and military regimes in oil states are our collective creation—so it's also our collective responsibility to figure out what comes next. Maybe the new democracies of the Middle East can reform their oil economies—helping to spread the wealth more equitably, and perhaps even channel some of the funds into promoting alternatives.
There are already exciting plans underway for large-scale solar in the Middle East and North Africa. The renewed calls for energy independence at home are welcome indeed, but this push should not forget that we also need a truly Global clean energy future. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
More on Oil, the Middle East and Energy Independence
How Colonel Gaddafi Benefits from The West's Oil Addiction
How Peak Oil Contributed to Egyptian Unrest
Middle East Unrest Boosts Calls for Clean Energy