As Middle East goes nuclear, climate change goes critical. Part 3: Imperialism and climate

In the final part of Brian Parkin’s article, he shows that imperialist wars, arrested development and impending climate catastrophe are all linked through industrial capitalism’s continuing dependence on oil. He argues we need to replace capitalism before it causes any more irreparable damage to our societies and our world.

(See parts 1 and 2. See the whole article here.)

Ludvig Nobel's Branobel company, Balkhany, early 1900s.
Ludvig Nobel’s Branobel company, Balkhany, near Baku, early 1900s.
  1. Imperialist dimensions of a hotter world

When J A Hobson first penned the term Imperialism in 1899, Otto Benz had just invented the reciprocating internal combustion engine powered by ‘benzole’- an oil derived fuel and Joseph Djugashvilli (Stalin) had yet to start his career as a fund raising bank robber in the oilfields of the Caucasus around Baku on behalf of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party. Teddy Roosevelt had just fought a war with Mexico over it and William Knox D’Arcy was rummaging the wilderness of Persia on behalf of the British government in order to appropriate it[1].

Such references are far from frivolous in that they underline a reality of the modern age: oil was the founding global commodity of imperialism and still as a life-blood of industrial capitalism it remains the stuff over which most blood continues to be shed. Oil whilst transforming much of the technical means of production it is also the stuff of gangsterised client states, despots, tyrants and the cause and curse of arrested development for many producing countries.  The ‘majors’- the principal corporations that dominate the world hydrocarbon business have annual turn-overs and surplus’s that many modest size nation states would envy and they enjoy a privilege of access to the highest levels of government and military authority that circumvents any pretence to democratic accountability. Though environmental responsibility is respectfully nodded to, in practice it is both begrudged and frequently flouted.

The consolidation of the petroleum industry resulted in the formation of massive companies, which although initially locating their business in a particular region, soon became the first truly trans-continental corporations. Central to the well-being of their host nations, these companies inevitably became instruments of government foreign policy. The continual process of consolidation gave rise to corporations in which it was often difficult to distinguish between commercial business and high affairs of state. British Petroleum (BP) started life as a swashbuckling venture as the Anglo Persian Oil Corporation (APOC) in which the Persians had no say. Buying the highest favours in high office APOC was able to persuade one of its earliest imperialist advocates Winston Churchill; the first Sea Lord of the Admiralty to convince the Royal Navy to convert their ships to oil firing. Which they duly did and with APOC having exclusive contract rights[2].

But the real hey-day of the petroleum period came after the Second World War and the spoils arising from the infamous division of the globe into respective ‘spheres of influence’ in which the major powers were designated post-colonial fiefdoms. It was in this period of monopoly capitalism that the oil interests of western capitalism morphed into the ‘Seven Sisters’[3], forming an oligolopoly – a cartel which whilst carving out regions ripe for exploitation, also contrived to minimise exploration and extraction costs whilst fixing the price downstream to the consumer[4]. These arrangements have survived more or less intact despite the passing of the post-war corporatist and mixed economy doctrine of Keynsianism.

The 1973 Yom Kippur war and the subsequent massive oil shock did much to cement further the relations of oil and state and subsequent events up to 2003 and the invasion of Iraq have deepened the symbiotic relationship[5]. But the intervening years have seen concerns regarding energy security compounded with alarm regarding the implications of unfettered carbon emissions. Here again the embrace of oil and state has tightened with governments initially prepared to risk their reputations by endorsing climate change denial[6], as persists to this day with the US Republican party proud to be the voice of ‘big oil’. This particular phase of neoliberal imperialism renders electoral ‘power’ impotent in the face of the national interest merging seamlessly with the corporate priorities of energy corporations[7].  And where energy corporations fear to tread there are always the recipients of the defence lobby who can provide the latest in hi-tech counter-insurgency kit to quell the occasional rash of local anti-corporate trouble[8].

In whatever period imperialism had little regard for electoral mandate or sovereignty of the territories to be plundered. But in a period where enemies within and threat from without can be conjured by a compliant media for repetition in the hollowed out democracy of parliamentary chambers, the prospect of reforming the institutions of an ‘extreme centre’ are negligible. In an age in which an imperialism can at a whim call upon ‘the mandate of markets over that of the ballot box’[9], then the insurgency of the masses as the agent of fundamental change is long-overdue.

  1. Climate change

In the course of the energy wars and crises of the past 30 years we have seen hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, battlefields irradiated with depleted uranium, aquifers exhausted and polluted, oil field fires burn out of control for months on end and river deltas such as the Niger – previously rich ecosystems of great biodiversity with nutrients capable of supporting abundant agriculture – polluted beyond repair.

For countries like Nigeria – the biggest and potentially richest economy in Africa, the position of being a client state to the Shell petroleum company is both a blessing and a curse[10]. A blessing in that it tantalises the people with the promise of jobs and a better life. And a curse in that only a few will prosper and the shanty town twilight zone between the rural poverty they flee and the bright lights of the city they yearn becomes a degraded and permanent reality. Yet in such a situation oil and gas – resources well beyond their immediate control – appear to offer the only possible means to economic progress and a better life.

The reason for saying this is to point out how sanctimonious environmentalists may sound when we decry such people’s dependency on hydrocarbons that are the cause of environmental damage – and all the more so when they point to the desolation of their own local environment which is part of the cost of extracting the minerals that developed societies seemingly benefit from. So it is at two levels – both the local and the global – where the challenge of chronic poverty and environmental degradation must be met.

The enormity of the environmental crisis now confronting humanity needs little elaboration here. But what needs to be said is that the knowledge of the problem has eventually penetrated the more sceptical of quasi-scientific bodies such as the International Energy Agency[11] (IEA). Now conceding global warming as a real and present threat it places much more emphasis on energy conservation and efficiency. However their forecasts for 2014-40 in terms of fuel production and usage against a back-ground of proven levels of global temperature rise are alarming.

In their latest offering the IEA proposes a central case in which;

  • Energy demand will grow by 37% to 2040 with a projected annual growth of 1.1%
  • The world supply of oil will rise by 14 million barrels per day until 2040
  • By the mid-2020s the main source of oil will slip back to the MENA region
  • In all major regions except Europe there will be a 50% increase in natural gas production to 2040
  • Combined UN efforts to curb CO2 emissions will fall short of the 2oC target
  • Emissions will rise by 20% to 2040
  • Current emissions now put the world on track for a 3.6oC rise in global temperature
  • Even by reducing carbon fuels by 25% now we would still fall 50% short of limiting temperature increase to 2oC
  • US shale gas will continue year on growth until mid-2030’s
  • Gas will grow and be sustained at 5 trillion cubic metres per year to 2040
  • World electricity demand is set to increase by 80% during period 2015-40
  • Power station CO2 emissions with rise from 13.2 gigatonnes to 15.4 gt by 2040. [12]

It is clear from the IEA ‘New Policies Scenario’ which although optimistic in reaching some kind of global accord, the long-term prospect on offer is at best an upward and seemingly unstoppable rise in global temperature. It is equally clear that under the continued stewardship of rapacious capitalism that the global greenhouse we inhabit is fast becoming a madhouse.

Capitalism long ago became incapable of ensuring human well-being. Now through the wilful mismanagement of our planet the time has come to relieve it of any future responsibilities.

Brian Parkin, Leeds August 2015.




[1] Charles More, Black Gold: Britani and Oil in the Twentieth Century, 2009.

[2] Charles More, ibid, pp. 11-22.

[3] Anthony Barnett, The Seven Sisters, 1974

[4] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: political Power in the Age of Oil, 2011, revised 2013.

[5] Greg Pallast, Vultures Picnic, 2012. Also Barnett, ibid.

[6] This has been most notable in the case of right-of-centre political parties who have often commissioned quite bogus scientific climate denial ‘evidence’.

[7] Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, 2015, pp 109-121.

[8] Haliburton, the oil industry services contractor is reputed to ’employ’ more private security personnel in Iraq than the US did between 2006 and 2008.

[9] Mario Draghi, European Central Bank, speech on the need for deficit control 2011.

[10] Nigeria as a high-cost OPEC member state has suffered enormously from the oil price collapse of January 2015. The country presently has an inflation rate of c.60% but for some essentials such as clean bottled water, the rate of inflation is around 300%. Under the stewardship of Shell Nigeria’s markets have shifted to South East Asia where gulf producers, now excluded from North American markets, are now competing for market share and at a lower price that Nigeria can produce at.

[11] The IEA is the energy advisory body to the OECD. In terms of regular summaries on the world’s energy resources and industries its World Energy Outlook is an invaluable resource. But it is only recently that the IEA have begun to caution on the consequences of unregulated energy production. Also for most of its climate modelling, the IEA relies on data from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[12] IEA. World Energy Outlook 2015 Factsheet.


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