Fossil fuel extraction - oil drills

There’s a simple idea that economic growth is good for democracy. A widely accepted truth, that when a citizen doesn’t have to worry about simple survival they can do more to get engaged with their governance. Educated, comfortable and free they can hold leaders to account. It’s an idea that goes back to Lipset in 1952 who posited that income per capita was positively correlated with democracy in that country.

Since 1952 Lipset’s law has come under more scrutiny. Indeed our modern history has become littered with examples of countries who have become income rich and democracy poor. Nowhere is this clearer than in countries who are resource rich, chock full of oil and other material wealth. Coined the resource curse, this phenomenon suggests that oil and mineral wealth is not a catalyst for democracy but an engineer of autocracy.

Some of the richest oil states, the members of OPEC, are prime examples of the resource curse. Of the 12 member states none of the OPEC members are ranked as democracies in the international Democratic Index. Indeed Fayad, Bates and Hofflers 2012 research paper found a negative correlation between resource wealth and democracy in a state. The greater the mineral and resource wealth the less likely a nation would be governed democratically.

Resource wealth is so disruptive quite simply because it undermines one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy, taxation. No taxation without representation famously became the motto that birthed a state, but fundamentally it underlines that with taxation brings a desire to hold one’s leaders to account. When a country is resource rich that link between citizen and government is broken.

Fed by oil wealth these oil rich countries no longer need the tax of their citizens to survive. Instead they can skim from these vast profits, embezzle millions and millions, and use the scraps to mollify the wider populace. Citizens instead of getting democracy pay little tax. If they become unsettled and angry oil wealth can be used to grant sops to arrest any democratic flourish. For those that don’t buy the bribe imprisonment and violence is the remedy.

This was clearly at play during the Arab Spring. The most tumultuous revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa were in resource poor states, like Egypt and Tunisia. Libya was only toppled because of foreign intervention. In countries like Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait autocrats poured billions into subsidies and development to arrest the demands of protest movements. Oil wealth brought a new compact, one that compliance with the ruling elite would bring about a certain level of comfort, or else violence.

Fundamentally oil and other fossil fuels lend themselves to concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Fossil fuels are hard to extract and requires massive amounts of capital before any venture becomes profitable. Oil and Natural Gas are a way for the already rich to become richer. The only countries to have survived the curse are countries like Norway, where democracy was in place before hydrocarbons were discovered.

The solution is simple. It is primarily the West’s thirst for oil that has fuelled these autocratic states. It is our never ending need for more hydrocarbons that kept the royals and dictators from across the Middle East and North Africa insulated and secure. Without the profits of oil no longer would these regimes be so well placed to subjugate their populace. Without oil wealth no longer could they either buy off their citizens, or buy the means to brutalise them.

Yet the UK’s fossil fuel consumption remains stubbornly high. In 2013 27% of our gas supply came from the oppressive Qatari regime. Putin provided 40% of our coal. 30% of our oil came from the flawed democracies of Algeria, Nigeria and Russia. Our energy consumption bears a heavy footprint in fuelling worldwide oppression.

Divesting from fossil fuels, as well as being fundamental for avoiding catastrophic climate change, are key to addressing global injustice. Ending our dependence on fossil fuels would do much to reign in the tyrannical rule of many a dictator and address runaway levels of corruption. We need a mass movement that rejects dirty (both ethically and environmentally) fuels and pushes for a renewable energy revolution. The time is now.

Image credit: Larry D Moore – Creative Commons