On Commentisfree, A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosphy at Birkbeck College London, writes in “An antidote to the black poison

Over-determination is a particularly interesting phenomenon as it besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences. […] And yet: in the heaving crowd of causes one can pick out a few tall malefactors, ubiquitous and malevolent, diffusing noxious, maddening, riot-provoking odours as they dart about to spread their evil. One is mentioned so often here by me and others that the curse of its name can be given momentary rest. Another is mentioned far too infrequently, though frequently still. It is the black, toxic, planet-sickening ooze on which the world is so utterly drunk that it has become insane – lusting for the ghastly poison because burning it belches out wealth, and wealth means power and influence.

In other words: oil is the evil which explains the evil of Middle Eastern human rights atrocities, that nasty man, Putin, that nasty man, Bush, and his nasty father, and that nasty man Osama bin Laden.

In defence of oil – and nasty men aside for a moment – we can think of a number of positives which would struggle to survive without the energy and convenience that the ‘ghastly poison’ provides:

Hospitals
Schools
Ambulances
Central heating
Cheap, abundant food
Freedom and means to travel
The Department of philosophy, Birkbeck College London
etc.

In spite of his lyrical prowess, Grayling doesn’t offer us a very detailed account of the mechanism by which oil makes men evil, other than to say that oil creates wealth, which creates power, which creates corruption. Give the professor of philosophy a Nobel prize for something.

Finally, Grayling wonders…

…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?

The question here seems to suppose that, if only people didn’t ‘lust’ for oil, we would have an alternative. It is as though the oil itself were a narcotic that interfered in the process of rational judgement. Naturally, we would agree with Grayling if he were simply suggesting that the budget for the Iraq war were better spent on developing alternatives such as atomic or fusion energy. But what Grayling is saying is that the Iraq war was about oil, because of oil, and commissioned by junkies in search of another fix.

In this shallow view, Grayling mystifies oil. He turns it into a monster, a devil, an evil, malign spirit which possesses men. He himself ‘besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences’ rather than explains carefully why oil is a thing which adequately accounts for the current state of geopolitics, all by itself. He imagines that were there simply an alternative to oil, it would entail world peace. It’s as if politics, the desire for power, and the influence of powerful interests would each suddenly disappear were only we to spend enough dollars on wind technology as a ‘white’ alternative to the black magic of oil. In doing so, he looks for external reasons to explain human conflicts. (This environmental orthodoxy is just the sort of determinism Grayling seeks to avoid.) But arguably, fuel such as oil has given people the means to escape the mundane existence of subsistence living and to confront tyranny. The reason that it hasn’t in all cases is because such determinism as inherent in ‘oil = political freedom’ is equally wrong.

If wars can be fought for oil, wars can be fought for territories that provide better conditions for wind, solar, biomass, or tidal power generation. As green commentators have pointed out recently, the push for bio-fuels has caused problems for poor people as fertile land is given over to fuel crops, rather than food. Depriving the world of the means to create wealth does not remove from the world people with an advantage inclined to seek a greater share of it. On the contrary, it is poorer populations who are less able to resist powerful interests. And in a world where the production of fuel is limited to what ‘nature’ can provide on a moment-by-moment basis – such are the limits and demands of environmentalism – so the potential for conflict between tyrannies might escalate. But of course, that’s not going to happen, because oil offers an alternative way of life which is better than bondage to the land and feudal landlords. Environmentalism’s proximity to the anti-wealth, anti-development agenda should offend Grayling’s humanist perspective. It’s a real pity that it doesn’t. The result is an anti-human determinism: environmentalist orthodoxy, taken for granted, masquerading as humanism.

6 Responses to Black Stuff Turns Grayling Green

  • Prof. Grayling writes (via email):

    Dear Editors
    All the benefits (which I am in whole-hearted favour of) that you say flow from oil flow from energy, one source of which is oil. As a pollutant, as sourced from regions of the world which in religious, political and social terms are particularly problematic, and as lying at the centre of a number of present conflicts and tensions, oil is without any question whatever – despite your heroic but gasp-making defence of it – a source of energy we would do extremely well to replace with something cleaner and found closer to home. The central point of my piece was to urge something like a ‘total war footing’ effort by the developed economies to invest in using alternatives and finding new alternatives. Is one to infer from your remarks that you disagree with any of this, the only objection to which can surely be its obviousness? My good wishes to you – Anthony Grayling

  • Anthony,

    You argue that oil lies at the centre of a number of conflicts. This supposes that the war in Iraq is about and for control of oil. We do not agree that it is so simple. And that to put oil at the centre of our understanding of political questions prevents us from understanding political problems domestic to the UK and USA (among others) which express themselves in foreign policy.

    The urgency that the environmental movement wishes to generate with arguments about alternatives to oil (e.g., your ‘total war footing’) is exactly the same urgency – and therefore legitimacy – that the hawks of Washington and Westminster wish to capture. As AlexGourevitch writes in N+1( http://www.nplusonemag.com/politicsoffear.html ), climate change is the left’s war on terror. Both the left, and the right (and the centre too) appeal to anxieties about forces which are beyond politics (irrational religious ideologies on the one hand, and Mother Nature on the other), and by promising security from them, conceal their own political exhaustion. But the acts of religious terrorism of recent years mark the desperation of fundamental religious movements, not their popular power. Similarly, the demonstration of military muscle to protect the civilised West from a bunch of men in caves exhibits intense nervousness about the fragility of the directionless – yet massively powerful – West. As we say in our introduction “Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics”. Ditto terrorism.

    It is the desire of almost all current political movements to get us on a ‘total war footing’ which means that each of them is demanding that we make concessions about the future for the promise of security. You argue for alternatives to oil, but not, apparently, because of a positive vision that the world will share and make better, but to make a world less bad than it might be in the future you seem to imagine. But the desire for ‘Total war footings’ is better explained by the problems political parties have with legitimacy and political engagement. The tendency is to vastly overstate the problems being faced to terrify the uninterested public into engaging. Political ideas today promise only solutions to only slightly different crises. But the crisis is to be found at home, in the politics, not oozing from the ground in faraway lands, nor in the effect of pollution even further away.

    There are certainly good reasons to look for alternative energy sources – including environmental and geopolitical ones, perhaps – but switching from oil to another form of fuel will not end the problems caused by crisis politics. As we tried to explain, it may only cause real crises to emerge – just look at Iraq. What’s needed is not alternatives to oil, but alternatives to crisis politics.

  • Prof. Grayling writes (via email):

    Dear Editors
    You make several interesting and valuable points with which I sgree, especially the one about the Left’s and Right’s ‘wars’ on climate change and terror resepctively being sometimes over-dramatised masks for other and deeper problems. As regards religious fanaticism, I agree even more: last year I wrote in Prospect magazine a piece arguing that the upturn in religious assertiveness and in some cases violence is a mark of decline not resurgence. But granting that all problems have many causes, and yet that some causes are closer to the bruise than others, I find it hard to see how one can deny that energy hunger and its major appeasement by oil, together with the geography and socio-politics of oil demand and supply, is a major locus of concern. The Iraq war is not about oil directly, but about the situation in the world’s major oil producing region; China’s irredentism and regional politicking is about oil and gas under the East and South China Seas; the assertiveness of Russia, Iran and Venezuala cannot be wholly disconnected from the muscle that an inflated influx of petrodollars provide. Even Scottish nationalism is in part predicated on dreams of continuing oil revenues. I’m afraid the black stuff trickles into too many considerations for reference to it to be dismissed as a fig-leaf for other things, even though I fully agree there are other important things in the mix.Likewise, if the now increasingly affordable because efficient conversion of solar energy could replace oil and gas (see the current New Scientist magazine), the oil revenue earners and the many who feed on the fat crumbs from their tables would rapidly lose their place at centre stage, with many beneficial consequences. With good wishes – Anthony Grayling

  • Anthony,

    You have cited instances where oil and Bad Things apparently go together. Fair enough. But it’s just as easy for us to list cases that suggest that Bad Things have little to do with oil per se: The biggest oil exporters to the US are Canada and Mexico, (Venezuela and Saudi are 3rd/4th) and yet relations there are peaceful. In Angola, oil is fueling crucial development after decades of bloody civil war. (If we were inclined to determinism, we could even suggest that oil has facilitated peace in the region.) And who (apart from minke whales, perhaps) has anything against Norway – the seventh biggest oil producer?

    We worry that looking for causal relationships between oil and conflict precludes politics and history. These explain far better your examples of Bad Things going on in the world. Three of your examples – China, Russia, Mid East – comprise regions with turbulent recent histories that have emerged from the Cold War in different and complex ways. In the case of the Middle East, the region became strategically important well before the importance of oil as a fuel. British & French interests in the region were served by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 – opening up shipping routes to the Empire. We notice that in CiF in March [http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/ac_grayling/2007/03/by_this_time_next_year.html], you state that “Dependence on Middle Eastern oil began on the fateful day in 1911 when Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to equip the Royal Navy’s many ships with oil-burning instead of coal-burning engines. That necessitated gaining control of oil resources in the Middle East, which marked the beginning of an increasingly messy relationship with the region.” And yet by 1911, Britain’s (in fact, a number of European) interests were well established in the region, which had already influenced its politics. (See for example, the Egypt War of 1882 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/egypt/ .) Later, theUS’s interest was strategic – explained by its anxieties about the possibility of soviet expansion and the rise of nationalist movements in Africa (cf. Angolan civil war, above).

    Iran: You seem to agree that the War on Terror exaggerates the threat to western security from the Middle East, and yet then say that it is oil that turns Iran into a dangerous enemy. Isn’t that the same thing, in that we must still take it for granted that Iran is evil, just as theWoT hawks want us to? The implication appears to be that Iran can’t be trusted with oil. Are they somehow more prone to oil-psychosis than us?

    We are particularly perplexed by this: “Even Scottish nationalism is in part predicated on dreams of continuing oil revenues.” Aside from the triviality of this example, you seem to be suggesting that nationalism is a Bad Thing in and of itself. Or that oil revenue is undesirable because the wealth it generates expands the possibilities for self-determination. But moreover, you are again ignoring the politics. The SNP have been banging on about Scotland’s oil wealth for decades, and yet it’s only now that North Sea oil production is dwindling that theSNP have actually achieved some sort of power. Far more influential surely is Blair’s attempts to appease the nationalists with devolution while simultaneously failing to engage the Scottish electorate. Oil wealth provides a potential means to independence from uninterested regimes rather than a justification for it. Similarly, you say that “the assertiveness of Russia, Iran and Venezuela cannot be wholly disconnected from the muscle that an inflated influx of petrodollars provide.” What is wrong with assertiveness? Arguably, the past inability of these countries to be assertive has been a causal factor in their current problems. For example, Russian ‘Oligarchs’ (oilgarchs? Ho ho) were able to acquire so much because in the chaos of the post soviet era and the phenomenal speed at which the economy was transforming, there was simply no viable political challenge. Russians, Iranians, and Venezuelans – for better or worse – have good historical reasons for desiring an assertive leadership. Do you imagine that the UK is not assertive about its own interests? Why should other countries be any different? Yet countries can be assertive, and interdependent, and bring benefits from oil simultaneously. This is, once again, a question of politics.

    But you seem to be averse to politics not only as an explanation for world events, but also as a process in itself. Which is perhaps why the deterministic explanation is so attractive to you. As you have said yourself, oil is just another source of energy. And yet you then say: “Likewise, if the now increasingly affordable because efficient conversion of solar energy could replace oil and gas … the oil revenue earners and the many who feed on the fat crumbs from their tables would rapidly lose their place at centre stage, with many beneficial consequences.” As we have agreed, there are good reasons to develop alternative sources of energy. But that oil is the cause of the world’s ills is not one of them. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that ditching oil will create as many problems as it solves – in regions that are dependent on selling the stuff, for example. Other problems would simply be displaced, as oil barons switch their area of business to, say, solar generation – as discussed – and dominate that. Enron, before their collapse, were looking to make millions of dollars from emissions-trading schemes – and lobbied hard for them. The politics would not go away just because the oil has. As a leaked Enron memo in 1997 put it:

    If implemented, this agreement [Kyoto] will do more to promote Enron’s business than will almost any other regulatory initiative outside of restructuring the energy and natural-gas industries in Europe and the United States.

    One could even suggest that while no alternative to oil exists, there is a moral imperative to find a way of sucking oil out of the ground faster, extending its benefits to more people. If oil were MORE accessible – not less – to a greater number of people, it would open up possibilities for industrialisation of poorer regions, in turn opening up the possibilities of political change, and freeing people from poverty, and the punishing effects of exposure to the climate – whether it is changing or not. Of course, this process entails politics, and also itself opens up the possibility of new problems emerging. But that is the point – it’s the politics, not the oil that drives things. Similarly, interchangeable anti-oil/anti-wealth/anti-development agendas – which are especially influential when advanced by prominent academics – act only to restrict the availability of oil for the sake of avoiding an imagined apocalypse (caused either by mad oil mullahs or Gaia). This politics of security and sustainability – which has its roots in western anxieties – must necessarily contribute to escalating prices, tensions, and divisions between interests, reducing the possibility of political change against tyrannies. Indeed, ‘sustainability’ and ‘security’ become tyrannies.

  • FOLLOW THE MONEY:
    In speaking to politically fuelled climate change and the so called anthropogenic questions surrounding it, it might be prudent to first ask WHY people have such a need to suicidally abandon themselves to fundamentalist type Armageddon laden fear mongering by offering to pay up front before depopulating themselves, – all for the sake of the planet.
    So few really know or even want to learn how to examine the elephant in question.
    Even fewer examine the blind men who play at being exclusive authorities about elephants.
    Of course, the elephant in question here is our planet. Granted, humans, not to mention countless volcanoes, forest fires, etc., have widely polluted the earth’s atmosphere. But are we really so powerful that she is now gasping her last breath?
    Has recent human activity actually as good as killed the planet?
    “Gorists” need a saviour who will offer to save them from themselves.
    Gore, not content with multi millions of dollars which in all likelihood may have gained purchase to the Nobel Prize, is, along with others of his ilk, more than happy to oblige.
    Eugenics depopulation experts rub their hands with glee. This stands to save future costs otherwise spent on active depopulation.
    Climate change is a constant. Yet today’s most ignorant act as if it is something new.
    Non computerised research illustrates that human activity did not cause far more extreme rapid fluctuations in climate in the past.
    So why now?
    The answer is that this latest climate is a climate of fear.
    It is driving an increasingly irrational stampede over a cliff.
    The AGW priests now seeks to preserve their goal whilst the masses fail to notice that their chosen leaders actually ask them to abandon all pretence of supportable reason or judicious logic in favour of hysteria. Yet they collude by embracing trendy, rigid, group hysteria inflamed, secular religions such as this latest one, courtesy of paid advertising professionals flogging what is often unquestioned junk science.
    Man caused Global Warming (versus natural climate change) seems to be the product of a corporate coup, the result of a mastery of virtual advertising.
    And like so many lemmings, the majority of somnambulists rush to fall off that cliff.
    No human cost is too great to join this crowd follower special, Anthropogenic Global Warming.
    Devilishly clever, really.
    Makes Hitler’s various ploys look like those of a rank amateur.
    AGW has been calculatedly set in motion to aspire to far greater long term profits than the already billions of dollars which non secular religions currently generate.
    Add it up. Taxing half to death the population of the entire planet is not only unimaginably lucrative. In addition, justifying this level of taxation makes it that much easier to waive all that messy individual sovereignty of any lingering wannabe democratic countries.
    Once the masses are convinced by the latest opiate of AGW and that they are guilty of it all, that they must forever tithe to this latest church of over night climate change, it is but a short further step to convince them to consider discontinuing their lives as well. One need only glance at the vast financial sums mounting even now on the climate collection plate as the plates race back up to the few who are orchestrating this climate of dread.
    Evangelist Oral Roberts had nothing on this game, even with his “sea of green” rapid collection from hysterics at the height of the routine fundamentalist frenzy he knew so well how to generate.
    It is not news that fear is by far the most effective tool of any and all non democratic leaders. Fear instantly bypasses all logic, including systematically subverting any and all new information which does not fit with the established ideologue driven rigidities necessary for massive profit from climate fear mongering.
    Even the official position of the Bush Administration vis a vis climate, whether or not this is their way of playing the reluctant bride, only serves to make people fallaciously deduce that if Bush is wrong then climate change must be real.
    Climate change fear mongering is transparently obvious as the prelude to proactive depopulation.
    As it stands, current climate modelling computerised conclusions cannot even successfully reproduce historical climate conditions with any accuracy?
    So … Which of your intellectual opponents, one wonders, would care to volunteer to off themselves first, for the sake of Mother Earth?

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