Imperial recipes for a burnt planet

April 2, 2013

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, explains the critical connection between imperialism and ecological destruction.

AT THE turn of the 19th century, industrialist and weapons manufacturer par excellence Alfred Nobel, the guilt-ridden inventor of dynamite, established the Peace Prize that carries his name, proposing that it go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Over 100 years later, for the first time ever, a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an African woman. The 2004 award was controversial. Politicians from the country responsible for the awards, Norway, wanted to know what this woman from Kenya had done for peace.

Carl I. Hagen, leader of Norway's Progress Party, whose senior political adviser, Inger-Marie Ytterhorn, was a member of the Nobel Committee, sneeringly dismissed giving the Prize to a mere environmental activist: "I thought the intention of Alfred Nobel's will was to focus on a person or organization who had worked actively for peace...It is odd that the committee has completely overlooked the unrest that the world is living with daily, and given the prize to an environmental activist."

U.S. military forces roll by oil field fires in Southern Iraq in 2003
U.S. military forces roll by oil field fires in Southern Iraq in 2003 (Jonas Jordan)

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide felt that widening the Prize to include the environment diminished its importance: "The one thing the Nobel Committee does is define the topic of this epoch in the field of peace and security. If they widen it too much, they risk undermining the core function of the Peace Prize; you end up saying everything that is good is peace."

What, after all, had the late Wangari Maathai done for peace? Here's how Maathai described her work in forming the grassroots Green Belt Movement (GBM) in the 1970s to empower rural women by employing more than 100,000 of them to plant 15 million trees:

What we've learned in Kenya--the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance--is also relevant globally. Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy and democratic space are denied...

Unless we properly manage resources like forests, water, land, minerals and oil, we will not win the fight against poverty. And there will not be peace. Old conflicts will rage on and new resource wars will erupt unless we change the path we are on.

The fact that Maathai saw a clear connection between poverty, the fight for women's rights, political emancipation and ecological justice--in a country that had lost 98 percent of its forest cover since colonization by the British--is what earned her the enmity of the Kenyan government, not to mention beatings and jail time. Though ultimately unsuccessful, in 1985, the Kenyan regime demanded that the women's movement separate from the green movement, so politically effective was their union.

Lack of tree-cover from ongoing deforestation and loss of topsoil means that in Sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls, who are responsible for over 70 percent of water collection, have to travel further and further to obtain it. The UN estimates that women in this region spend 200 million hours per day collecting water for food and farming purposes, or 40 billion hours annually.

As part of the GBM, collectively empowered women came to understand that the legacy of the savage colonial exploitation of Kenya by Britain and the subsequent neo-colonial and dictatorial policies of Daniel Arap-Moi--aided by international financial bodies like the IMF, which focused on production of cash crops for export, in place of sustainable and ecologically appropriate food farming for domestic use--were promoting the degradation of the environment and providing the fuel for further increases in poverty, inequality and violence.

FAST FORWARD five years, and 2009 saw the Nobel Peace Prize given to another person of Kenyan descent. This time, there was no controversy, despite his rather flimsy credentials and just-announced escalation of a land war in central Asia. The Nobel committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, declared, "The question we have to ask is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world," before answering: "And who has done more than Barack Obama?"

When accepting his award for the promotion of peace, the recipient made a special point of highlighting the moral justification for war, not peace: "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflicts in our lifetimes...There will be times when nations--acting individually or in concert--will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Since then, Barack Obama has set up the White House "kill list," which includes U.S. citizens; justified torture and warrantless wire-tapping; kept Guantánamo Bay open and full of people charged with no crime or access to a court of law; persecuted government whistleblowers and extended a vicious drone war from Pakistan to Africa; and set up new forward bases in some of the most impoverished countries in the world to prosecute Washington's wars more effectively.

As President Obama gets ready to sign off on final construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, it behooves environmentalists to understand the guiding principles which motivate a nation state's decisions regarding energy policy. Following the approval of the building of the southern portion of pipeline a year ago, White House spokesman Jay Carney couldn't have been clearer about the administration's priorities:

We support the company's interest in proceeding with this project, which will help address the bottleneck of oil in Cushing that has resulted in large part from increased domestic oil production...We look forward to working with TransCanada to ensure that it is built in a safe, responsible and timely manner, and we commit to taking every step possible to expedite the necessary federal permits.

In terms of helping to create the conditions for new resource wars, Barack Obama's much touted "all of the above" energy policy--a critical part of the U.S. ruling elite's imperial foreign policy, which compels other powerful governments to respond in similar fashion--deserves deeper analysis from an ecological viewpoint. Put differently, within the normal operation of capitalism, what structural impediments have prevented an international agreement on climate change for almost two decades?

DESPITE THE unprecedented injection of trillions of dollars into the economy by the Federal Reserve since 2008 and the globalization of war, it has become fashionable to argue that the power of the state has ebbed in the age of neoliberal deregulation and the massive concentration of global financial and political power in ever-growing, gigantic transnational corporations.

Yet could the oil and gas companies that are busily drilling holes all over the planet really do what they do on their own? How does an understanding of inter-imperial conflict over resource extraction and the role of the state within capitalist economics help us understand our ecological crisis and possible solutions to it?

The need for constant growth is endemic to capitalism and therefore makes it impossible to find a permanent solution to environmental degradation within a competitive, profit-driven system. Alongside that is a second fatal--and underappreciated--anti-ecological contradiction of capitalism: the international competition between nation states over resources and political hegemony.

Republican Rep. Bill Flores from Texas highlighted the main reason for building Keystone XL and the interests driving U.S. energy policy when, as part of a House debate to approve a bill to expedite building the pipeline, he said, "If we do not tap this valuable resource, the Chinese or other countries will."

The fact that large oil companies work hand-in-glove with the U.S. government to undermine democracy in the interests of resource extraction, profit and inter-imperial rivalry was revealed once again when WikiLeaks published State Department cables describing a memo from Ann Picard, Shell's vice president for Sub-Saharan Africa, to U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Robin Renee Sanders.

The memo detailed how Shell was trying to outmaneuver efforts by the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom to enter the Nigerian oil fields and claim a piece of the highly lucrative business that is at the epicenter of a 50-year-long environmental and social catastrophe, but has made Nigeria the eight-biggest oil producer, responsible for 8 percent of U.S. oil imports.

Shell had been able to find out that the Nigerian government was offering oil concessions to U.S. competitors China and Russia--because, Picard told U.S. officials, the Nigerian government "had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries," according to the cable.

In an earlier article, I described the burgeoning oil and gas boom that is moving the U.S. toward "energy independence"--as highlighted in Citigroup's 2013 report gloatingly titled "Energy 2020: Independence Day"--based on massive expansion of domestic fossil fuel extraction.

ENERGY POLICY is at the heart of the capitalist class' global gamble with the laws of nature, as each country attempts to grab as much land, oil, gas and other resources, in the interest of projecting political and economic power around the world. With its focus on the international ramifications of a changing energy outlook, the Citigroup report highlights the newly favorable climate for U.S. power:

Because of changing dynamics in the geographic spread of production of unconventional, as well as conventional supplies (notably from Iraq), and because of growing inroads that natural gas should have in displacing oil products in the transportation sector, OPEC should find it challenging to survive another 60 years, let alone another decade.

In a further nod to geostrategic priorities, the report continues, "Will the U.S. continue to provide security guarantees for its longstanding allies and sources of supply? Will China step in to buy supplies where the U.S. no longer needs them, strengthening relations with new partners in the process?"

Despite a convincing study detailing how America's largest city, New York, could be entirely powered by wind, water and sunlight by 2050, Obama's "all of the above" means in practice that the emphasis continues to be on maximizing fossil fuel extraction to undercut rival countries and maintain an imperial geostrategic advantage. Indeed, the only sector of the U.S. state that is taking the promise of alternative energy seriously is the one responsible for using the lion's share of fossil fuels in the first place and charged with obtaining more: the U.S. military.

With Obama's geostrategic "pivot to Asia," designed to contain Chinese economic and political ambitions, Charles Ebinger and Kevin Massy at the Brookings Institute sounded a note of caution in offering advice to President Obama in January, outlining the steps they felt the U.S. needs to take to secure its global interests:

Irrespective of actions by OECD countries, China, India and other emerging nations will burn oil, gas and coal in ever-greater quantities for the foreseeable future. The main beneficiaries of this demand are likely to be the OPEC nations, Russia, Australia and other oil, gas and coal producers. Given its huge reserves of hydrocarbons, the United States could position itself as perhaps the principal beneficiary of this demand by adopting a near-term policy of full-scale, export-led oil, gas and coal development.

Unlike climate change demonstrators and activists, these are the kind of people someone intent on maintaining an empire listens to. In their "Black to Gold to Green" strategy, the "Green" part is there to insulate the U.S. from charges of being "irresponsibly self-interested" with regard to climate change. Furthermore, it's designed to put the U.S. in the forefront of green technology development, by allocating some of the oil and gas bonanza to carbon capture and advanced batteries. Ebinger and Massy are sanguine about the advantages of such a program of accelerated fossil fuel production:

The resultant surge in production and exports would strengthen both the country's fiscal position through export revenues and job creation; and its political position through weakening the market power and the revenue generation of OPEC nations and Russia. It would also bring geopolitical benefits through the deepening of partnerships with key consumers such as China and India.

In other words, burning more fossil fuels can be good for the planet, while simultaneously fending off new international competitors for the U.S. This would leave the U.S. free to cement its global pre-eminence and solve its balance-of-trade deficit, by increasing exports and creating more jobs in the fossil-fuel sector, despite the dangers of ecological suicide.

THE U.S. ruling elite has long recognized that maintaining a global reach cannot be left solely to the dominance of the U.S. military, but fundamentally rests on a strong and growing economy. U.S. economic restructuring to take back market share from rising competitors is, therefore, based in large part on a resurgent domestic energy industry, combined with a reversal of the trend for offshoring manufacturing production.

Progress on this front will be achieved by cutting living standards and wages for U.S. workers to make them competitive with China. The introduction of two-tier wages in the manufacturing sector, the full-frontal assault on the remaining centers of union power, increased productivity and financial incentives through corporate tax breaks are all part of the drive to "onshore" production. As the Financial Times reported:

"Reshoring" production is a strategy being tried by many American manufacturers, as rapid wage growth in emerging economies and sluggish pay in the U.S. erodes the labor cost advantage of offshore plants. The U.S. has added 429,000 factory jobs in the past two years, replacing almost a fifth of the losses during the recession.

The FT described the three reasons that General Electric executive Chip Blankenship gave for the company's shift of manufacturing facilities back to the U.S.: "the adoption of 'lean' manufacturing and design techniques that made the plant more efficient and took labor content out of production; the move to a two-tier workforce that means new employees are paid $13 per hour compared to $22 per hour for those employed before 2005; and $17 million of government incentives." Another important reason: high energy costs, which affect the cost of transporting goods internationally.

Thus, such actions--coupled with "full-scale, export-led oil, gas and coal development" to depress energy prices, which are a critical component of production costs in a variety of sectors--are part of the U.S. ruling class strategy to combat economic decline, boost the domestic economy, cut the balance of payments deficit and regain international market share against rising global and regional competitors.

So while the military-centered strategy of the Bush Doctrine failed in its program of reshaping the Middle East--resulting, for example, in a focus on containing, rather than overthrowing, the Iranian regime--the U.S. state has been considerably more successful elsewhere in repositioning itself economically and politically.

Allied to these changes, the military might of the U.S. is shifting its focus toward Asia as more of the Navy's fleet is redeployed to the Pacific and Asian theaters. This, in turn, is fueling a game of military brinkmanship in the South China Sea, as U.S. military and political moves unsettle regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, and worry China, North Korea and Russia.

The U.S.'s proposed new East Asian trading bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership--which specifically excludes China from membership, a fact not lost on the Chinese ruling class--is a similar recognition of the realignment of power.

Naturally, China is not standing idly by as it is surrounded by U.S. imperial might. The Chinese government has responded with a new trading bloc of its own, one that pointedly excludes the U.S.; a substantial increase in its military budget; and new oil and gas deals throughout Africa, the Middle East and even in the U.S.'s own backyard in Latin America.

In late March, representatives of the Ecuadorian government were in Beijing to negotiate a deal with China to allocate rights to 3 million hectares of undeveloped Amazonian forest--the home to thousands of indigenous people--for oil exploration, along with the construction of a multibillion-dollar, Chinese-financed oil refinery.

At a protest against the selling of their land, Narcisa Mashienta, a leader of Ecuador's Shuar people, defiantly proclaimed, "What the government's been saying as they have been offering up our territory is not true; they have not consulted us, and we're here to tell the big investors that they don't have our permission to exploit our land."

Brazil, with its own imperial aspirations for regional dominance, is similarly opting to scale up its exploitation of its natural resources for energy production--specifically in the realm of a truly enormous expansion of hydroelectric power. The gigantic 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte dam in the Amazaon--which will require flooding a vast area of forest, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people, and can't be operated at anything like full power without the construction of several more dams--is still being built despite continual protests and work stoppages by unions and indigenous activists, not to mention a growing international outcry.

THE FACT that all of these changes aren't just detrimental to indigenous and working people around the world, but are suicidal when it comes to any hope of maintaining a stable climate, should also indicate our natural allies in the fight for an ecologically sustainable and socially just society. Workers, unions, indigenous groups and environmental activists need to form a united front against the planet-wrecking priorities of the 1 Percent.

Underlying this united front must be a theoretical appreciation for how the laws of motion of capitalism operate inexorably to promote unending growth and international competition over natural resources, factors which will destroy all hope for future generations and lead to the extinction of countless species. In turn, international economic competition threatens constantly to break out into its militarized version, as nation states and antagonistic trading blocs opt for warfare.

Indeed, Charles Emmerson, writing in Foreign Policy, a journal written for the U.S. ruling class, points to the compelling similarities between the worlds of 1913, on the brink of the First World War, and 2013. As the U.S. jockeys for position with China, Emmerson writes, the chances of a global conflagration are all too real:

In the last year before the Great War, Germany was Britain's second-largest trading partner, leading many in the City of London--and across Europe--to conclude that, despite the rise of Anglo-German antagonism over naval armaments, a war between the two was unlikely. If the international solidarity of the workers did not stop a war, the self-interest of global finance would, it was argued.

In another historical moment that resonates acutely today, the cynical realpolitik of the U.S. ruling class was perhaps best summed up in 1948 in State Department Policy Planning Memorandum #23, written by George Kennan. Kennan was a central figure in the group of "wise men" advising U.S. presidents about foreign policy, and his memo formed the basis for what eventually became known as the Truman Doctrine:

[W]e have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

Kennan goes on to give his rationale for a more forthright and unambiguous foreign policy stance:

We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and--for the Far East--unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic.

International competition for resources and the hunt for more fossil fuels to burn by competing imperial states is one of the key structural impediments to the adoption of international agreements to address our deteriorating ecological situation.

TO END where I began, the ties between Maathai and Obama are, on the one hand, greater than a shared Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai and Obama's father both came to the U.S. as two of the 600 Kenyans airlifted under an education program championed by John F. Kennedy program.

On the other hand, their political outlook and dedication to peace, ecological sustainability and social justice couldn't be more starkly different. Maathai fought empire in the service of the downtrodden and oppressed; Obama seeks to extend it. Where she planted trees to propel her aims, Obama calls forth kill lists and drone strikes to facilitate his.

In 1996, an agricultural agency blamed poor people in the developing world for deforestation. Maathai responded that the rich were really to blame:

It is very common for people making such conclusions to blame poor people. Poor people are the victims, not the cause. In Kenya at the moment, we are fighting to protect the remaining very few indigenous forests from some of the richest people in the country.

It's easy to become despondent when assessing the urgency of addressing our ecological crisis--and recognizing the plans of the ruling classes around the world to exacerbate it for short-term economic and political gain. But understanding that we face a systemic problem can offer us a clearer picture of the kind of movement we need to build to take on the entire system. That picture offers us hope, too--because as poet Shelley once wrote, "We are many, they are few."

Further Reading

From the archives