Black Stuff Turns Grayling Green

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:

Central heating
Cheap, abundant food
Freedom and means to travel
The Department of philosophy, Birkbeck College London

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.