Monday, December 03, 2012

James Marriott & Mika Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London

Capitalism is a fossil fuel system. Historically capitalism needed the enormous energies concentrated in coal to kick off the industrial revolution. Later the wheels of accumulation were kept turning with oil. As the Canadian activist Andrew Nikiforuk points out in his book on the Tar Sands, American society needs a oil filled supertanker to arrive at one of its ports every four hours.

Some of the world's oil comes from the Caspian Sea. Vast amounts of it flow from the off-shore oil rigs through the historic city of Baku, into Georgia, through Turkey and eventually after travelling the Mediterranean in tankers, through Europe to Germany were it is refined. The oil that flows through these pipes is extremely profitable. In September 2008 one of the rigs in the Caspian developed a gas leak and had to be shut down. Output of oil dropped by 500,000 barrels every day and the daily loss in income was $50 million dollars. This money rarely makes it into the pockets of the men and women who work the oil fields, or who live and work on the land that covers the pipeline. A little of it trickles into the coffers of some of the states that protect and helped build the pipe, but only a little. Most of it ends up in the bank accounts of BP, one of the most important components of the modern energy economy.

In this book the authors try to understand this system. They try to explain why oil is so important and why it makes companies like BP such incredible amounts of profits. In doing so they explain why different countries are prepared to invest enormous amounts in protecting the pipeline, despite receiving little benefit from doing so.

More importantly the authors also discuss what this means for us. Oil after all is one of the significant ways that humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As the authors eloquently put it:

"The oil industry is build on the extraction of these long-dead ecosystems, and the Oil Road is constructed to distribute ancient liquid rocks so that our one species may live beyond the limits of the ecosystems of our times."

As they travel the length of the oil pipeline - the Oil Road - the authors meet many people from BP and the wider oil industry. Many of these people are rational individuals. They see themselves as providing a service to wider humanity, keeping the wheels of society turning. Yet BP and other oil companies are not benevolent neutral organisations. As one activist in Azerbaijan puts it, "BP doesn't do anything for human rights. Especially as BP is a great cooperator with our regime... they are not helping us build our democracy. It's great that they train some journalists to write articles professionally - but this is minor compared to their support for the repression."

On many occasions as they travel the Oil Road the authors find evidence of the way that the oil industry has propped up regimes that care little for their populations. Oil money has a nasty habit of distorting people and areas. Whole cities, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, explode around the drilling rigs. Money pours out to build shiny buildings and allow a minority to purchase expensive cars.

But the money distorts whole economies. In Azerbaijan, by 2008, "97 per cent of all exports were oil-related. The remaining 3 per cent were agricultural". This is a country that spent one billion dollars building a single, show piece bridge. Yet men and women are locked up for opposing the regime. The authors document the way that the oil companies develop the infrastructure and create countries were it is good for them to do business. This includes the funding of militias and bribery of politicians.

But the Oil Road is not just contemporary. The oil fields around the Caspian have been important almost as long as capitalism has needed the black gold. The city of Baku was one of the cities that mushroomed in Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Like St. Petersberg and Moscow it was a growing, concentrated site for workers and capitalism. Its workers were at the forefront of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and in the Oil Road there is a wonderful description of performance of the Symphony of the Factory Sirens that celebrated the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. The 1917 revolution led to the takeover of the oil industry in Baku, as the authors point out, the first nationalisation in history of an oil industry was accomplished by the Bolsheviks.

The authors travel the Oil Road and what they find is the dirty underbelly of capitalism. Particularly outside of Europe the pipeline creates a "corridor of violence", where human rights are dismissed and people are pushed around in the interest of the multinationals. Pipes are buried underground, a few metres from their homes and fields, threatening their homes and damaging their agriculture. Few of them receive adequate compensation. As the authors explore the pipeline they find the way that the oil companies receive protection from the state. Patrolled by government forces, policemen or soldiers, employed by the state but protecting the needs of private industry. This link between the oil companies and nation states is one of the most fascinating aspects to this book. When in 1992 BP was trying to get into the crucial markets of the former Soviet Union, they were allowed to set up their offices in the British Embassy. There can be few better examples of the hand in hand behaviour of the state and capital than this.

While the travelogue style of the book can at times be a bit confusing, there is much in here of use to anti-capitalists and environmental activists. It is particularly difficult to read it without developing enormous anger against BP, a company that in 2006 caused "total emissions of 5.6 per cent of the global total" over twice that of the whole of the UK. This is a company that turns oil production on and off at the press of a button if the price of crude oil falls too low, whose products make enormous profits for a tiny minority yet balks at offering a few hundred pounds to farmers whose lands have been destroyed by the Oil Road.

If there is one criticism, I feel that the Oil Road fails to offer much of an alternative. In part this is deliberate. The authors have clearly set out (and they this very well) to expose the reality of one part of the oil industry. But if humanity is to avoid catastrophic climate change, the Oil Road will need to be both explored and an alternative found. Other campaigns have been working on this and the Oil Road is an important weapon in these arguments.

Perhaps one way of finding a solution is gathering some inspiration from the Bolsheviks and their nationalisation of the oil industry after the revolution. This is not to suggest that after the revolution greenhouse gas emissions could be tamed. Rather it is to argue that the problem today are the private companies that destroy people and planet in the interest of profits. Taking control of the means of production is as important today as it was in 1917.

The left-wing Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was dazzled by the potential for technology to liberate humanity. In the Oil Road the authors quote one of his poems:

I sat at his deathbed
He said to read him a poem
About the sun and the sea
Nuclear reactors and satellites
The greatness of humanity

The press relations departments for the companies that use the Oil Road would enjoy that poem, though they probably wouldn't be able to comprehend the words of another of Hikmet's poems also quoted:

Love clouds, machines and books
But people above all

The Oil Road is driven by the irrational desire to accumulate wealth for the sake of wealth. A more rational society would shut it down and replace it with cleaner energy. James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello's book is a very useful tool in understanding the sickness of our system and the need for us all to find an alternative.

Note: You can purchase The Oil Road from Platform for the very reasonable price of £10 and help support their combination of art, education and activism. Their shop is here.

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Anna said...

After hearing the authors at Marxism in July speak about the book and read excerpts from it, I had to purchase it once it was finally published. I was not disappointed, although I felt like you that some solutions of what to do next would not be amiss. It is beautifully written, and captures the essence of the difficulties surrounding pipeline construction and the oil industry in general for the average citizen. The Hikmet couplet you quoted really is becoming more important to remember yet more and more forgotten each day.

Anna said...
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