Carbon Democracy

Examining how oil undermines democracy.

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. By Timothy Mitchell. Verso, 2011 288 pp.

As oil prices rose to more than $105 per barrel in March, Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, took to the Financial Times to reassure gas-guzzlers that scarcity is a “myth.” The kingdom, he claimed, could increase its production by 25 percent, if necessary. Not only has oil driven “incredible, and unprecedented, economic and social progress,” Al-Naimi wrote in the FT, its supply has also limited the imagination of all governments, democracies and autocracies alike.

We live in an era where reliance on fossil fuels has come to restrict the menu of energy supply policy options available. Our carbon dependency has essentially undercut democracy. The ostensibly endless supply of a nonrenewable resource has set a trap. Rather than putting forward energy alternatives, politicians prioritize low prices at the pump. Saudi’s oil surplus has become a tool to superficially alleviate the global financial crisis. Energy reliance is further aggravated by the nature of the international economy, which is accountable to market rather than democratic forces. How did government policies, financial markets, and indeed our everyday habits, become dominated by carbon?

In Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell links dependence on fossil fuels with the withering of democracy. While coal actually helped shape modern democracy, he writes, oil has set some of its limits. Oil producing and consuming states appear equally incapable of addressing the root causes of climate change or the prospect of energy shortages stemming from over-consumption. Carbon Democracy is at once a biography of energy, an intellectual history of economic theory and interventions, and a revisionist account of Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Mitchell draws connections between the sites of production and shipping routes, the influence of U.S. dollar and transnational economic institutions, and weapons deals and trade imbalances, to demonstrate that just about everything we think we know about energy is wrong.

Mitchell takes issue with the oil ‘curse’ argument, an oversimplification of the relationship between energy and governance. Conventional wisdom hangs on the correlation between the lack of democracy in the Middle East and the region’s copious energy stores, as if undemocratic symptoms in oil-states are triggered by profits in isolation. Mitchell argues that in the course of exploration, extraction, and movement, oil and democracy have mixed considerably. In fact, democracies were active partners in setting into motion oil’s global hegemony.

To appreciate oil’s negative impact on democracy, one must first consider the nature of its predecessor, which fueled both the industrialization and political activism of an earlier era. Mitchell details the emergence of “carbon democracies” in the nineteenth century through a study of the coal industry, where concentrated energy supply traveled in networks that offered workers a new kind of autonomy. Each step—mining, loading, transporting, and ultimately consuming—was susceptible to sabotage. In demanding better pay and work conditions, labor activists achieved egalitarian breakthroughs by way of their intransigent actions, notably mining and refinery strikes. In response, captains of industry persuaded governments to reorient markets toward petroleum in a way that weakened domestic labor movements.

Oil production benefited anti-democratic, corporate forces by design; pipelines in particular, provided a means to obstruct organized labor. The first pipeline was unveiled in the 1860s to bypass a teamster strike in Pennsylvania. That an abundance of the resource was found in the Middle East further disempowered workers in the West. Oil was easily transportable by tanker across continents, “menacing the world with additional supplies,” as Mitchell puts it.

The U.S. went to great lengths to secure oil’s predominance in the post-war period, from dubbing it a strategic resource to reorganizing Europe’s financial system around petroleum via the Marshall Plan. It makes one wonder whether Western democracies could take a similarly muscular approach to achieve a renewable energy breakthrough.

In this era of declining carbon resources, democracy will be further tested by the increasingly desperate quest for fossil fuels. The U.S.’s efforts toward energy independence push two forms of  extraction, namely offshore petroleum drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’)— a method of mining oil and natural gas from underground rock formations, which has not yet been federally regulated. From the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico to mini-earthquakes near fracking sites, both processes have proven to be dangerous, not only for the environment, but also for workers.

That the U.S. Congress is particularly oblivious to the bounds of oil production and prefers “drill, baby, drill” to sustainable outcomes, depicts the staying power of carbon. Neither drilling nor fracking is a quick-fix for the real issue at hand: oil fields the size of Saudi Arabia’s cache will need to be discovered every four years to keep up with increasing global consumption levels and exponential declines in production. Unwilling to tackle this challenge, Congress has refused to pass a climate bill or draw up a new energy policy. This is not merely imprudent, it is the product of the status quo lobby. Last year alone, ExxonMobil PAC spent nearly $1 million lobbying Republican representatives.

If policymakers want to imagine a post-petroleum future, then they first must understand how carbon’s ascendency has constrained representative government and reinforced an addiction to capitalism’s undemocratic character. The embrace of renewable sources of energy, Mitchell suggests, demands not only innovation but also a thorough reassessment of the global economy’s foundations. Carbon’s seemingly absolute power is not derived from dictatorships alone; it is very much dependent on democracies as well.

Jonathan Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He previously served as a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force in Washington, DC, and as assistant editor of Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has contributed to the Guardian, Inter Press Service, the BBC, and France24. He can be followed on Twitter at @mideastXmidwest.

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