OIL: To Solve this Problem, One Author Says Morals Trump Might & Money

…Should we listen?

Every fruit tells a story. With stickers and codes that identify where and how food is grown, today’s consumer can make more knowledgeable and ethical food choices. But backtrack a few decades, and you’ll find an America that didn’t give much thought to where food came from. So if we did this with food, can we do the same with another major consumable — Oil?

In the new book, Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence and the Rules that Run the World, author Leif Wenar says yes. Not only can we consume oil more knowledgably and ethically, unless we want more instability, repression and violence, we must. Wenar is Chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College, London. Full disclosure, he is also an old high school chum. These days we see each other about once a year. The talk lately: blood oil.

The gas at our pumps, like the food in our groceries, has an origin story, says Wenar. Whether controlled forcibly by repressive regimes or extracted at gunpoint, at least half of the oil we consume is, by our own legal definition, stolen property. When traded for western money and alliances, it empowers and emboldens autocrats, warlords and terrorists so that what we call resource-rich countries are, from the perspective of its people, resource-cursed. Not only that, but…

…the violence we fund washes right back onto our shores.

Wenar estimates that by filling our gas tanks, the average American family sends $275 a year to authoritarian regimes. Lest this news result in “privilege fatigue” — impotence resulting from awareness that modern daily life makes one party to serious global harm — Wenar is not asking us to break our oil habit. He is asking us to break our dirty oil habit. As he sees it, all the pieces to make it happen are in place:

The Principle. The pre-modern rule “might makes right” is obsolete. On paper, the U.S. and 91% of all countries agree: A country belongs to its people. Thus, decisions about its natural resources must be accountable to its people.

The Strategy. No soldiers, no sanctions. We’re simply saying to countries such as Saudi Arabia: We don’t want to preach. We don’t want to invade. We just can’t do business with you. It violates our own country’s principles.

The Metrics. Citing Freedom House and other organizations, Wenar says we have a “menu” of independent metrics to rate the extent to which governments are accountable to its people for decisions about natural resources. Plus, new transparency laws (2010) mean dirty oil is less hidden or fungible.

The Oil. First, it is in almost everything. “You drive on it, and you wear it in your waistband. It may be smeared on your face, and it may be enhancing your sex life,” writes Wenar. “Basically, if it’s plastic, it’s oil.” Yet, apparently, there’s enough. Today, we buy only 10% from the Middle East. North America’s oil and gas reserves combined with new energies — “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones” — means dirty oil-dependence is more old assumption than current reality.

The Politics: According to Wenar, political will is the bigger stumbling block. Can we take a stand with allies such as Saudi Arabia? It will not be easy, but from the protection of property rights, better national security, reduced environmental damage and increased empowerment of mistreated citizenry, Clean Trade has something for everyone — right and left.

The Moment. Low oil prices mean Big Oil is weak and oil states are financially stressed. The west’s greatest security threats and humanitarian crises originate in oil states and, from the Syrian refugee crisis to the attacks in Boston and Paris, the fallout of our unhealthy alliance is ever-present.

The Bandwagon. The U.S. plays the first note. Others will join in.

The Need. Oil is entangled with violence and repression. There is a geographic arc of oil that runs through Africa, the Middle East and Russia. Point anywhere on that arc and, it’s almost guaranteed, you’ll land on an authoritarian or failed state. Recent events, such as the Arab Spring, tell us that people are fighting to regain power. Buying stolen oil puts us on the wrong side of that fight. Not only does it defy our democratic values, it breeds extremism and anti-western views.

The ToDo. “Get us out of business with rulers and thugs whose riches come from bloody hands” on a national level, yes, but also individual — Wenar has suggestions here.

To Wenar’s argument, there are counter-arguments. Some based in caution (what might withdrawal unleash in an unstable and violent region?) or the environment (clean trade may still be environmentally dirty). Some say the singular focus on oil obscures other policy-shaping interests in the region (Israel, fear of Islam). But the most common critique is feasibility: Change is impossible or, because power and profit always find a way, change will be ineffective.

Wenar, in case you missed it, is a philosophy professor. Oil, you might think, is the stuff of economics, world diplomacy, political science, engineering, and geography. Yet into this domain walks a philosopher conversant about shale, extraction methods and conflict in the Congo, with a 400+page book of maps, charts, policy briefs, quotes from the likes of George Bush and Jimmy Carter, statistics — such as, the world uses 94 million barrels of oil a day — and metaphorical illustrations of statistics — that’s a swimming pool full every second. But while Wenar can talk the tangibles, empiricals, and pragmatics, he will not shy away from the ethical argument.

In fact, and this might take the usual players off-guard, as a strategy for foreign policy, ethics, he says, can have a distinct advantage.

So to the question of feasibility, he rejects fear of futility out of hand, and asserts that compelling ethics compel action. In 1787, the slave trade enriched the British crown and powerful interests had every reason to keep it that way. Yet,in that same year, twelve Quakers convened and committed to the seemingly unrealistic goal to end the trade of “stolen” human beings. Twenty years later they were successful. Colonialism and apartheid were also once legal and accepted. “The progress that humanity has made in the last 300 years,” writes Wenar, “has come from turning ‘respectable’ practices of violence into widely reviled crimes.”

More so, to take a principled stand, despite short-term pain, has the potential to do more to counter terrorism than economic and military might. Oil regions are destabilized and distrustful of the West. How else is trust built, asks Wenar, but by doing what you say you will do? In this case, that means espousing democratic values and also living up to them.

Morality is easily cast aside as admirable but pitiful in the face of the geopolitical forces that run the world. But bring a philosopher into the conversation and it is recast as a strength. Why pit realism against idealism when it is sometimes realistic to be idealistic? As Wenar says, “It seems impossible only until it happens.”

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