How do most of what we buy and consume help create wars as well as prop up dictatorships and systems of oppression? How can we change this? Maria Armoudian talks to Leif Wenar about blood oil and consumer choice.
Leif Wenar is a chair of philosophy and law at Kings College, London. He is the author of Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: You have traced the making of just about everything that we use that is built from natural resources. You open with the mobile phone. Do you want to walk us through a little bit of that and then we’ll expand that into other things?
Leif Wenar: These wonderful devices that we carry around with us, that do so much for us, that we talk into, text with, and game on, we tend to think that these are all natural resources and the natural resources come from specific places on our earth. The thing about the natural resources that go into our phones is that on the other end of the world supply chain is often something called the resource curse. It’s a fact about our world that countries rich in natural resources are often full of very poor people, authoritarians, militias, and corruption.
MA: Let’s go into a description of the supply chain that you mention. You had a beautiful description of it that is connected to everything we wear and use. Each of these has its own supply chain. Can you walk us through some examples?
LW: If you think about [the] circuitry in your cell phone, where did the molecules that make up that circuitry come from? Probably from all over the world. It could be that somewhere in the solder of your circuitry there is some tin that came from the Congo. It might have gone from there to a smelter in Thailand, then [to a] manufacturing plant in China, and then shipped all through the world supply chain to where you are. That means that whoever took out that little piece of metal from the ground at the other end of the world is in business with you and you are sending some of your money back to them when you buy products like cell phones and other electronics. Because of globalisation we are in business with people all over the world. The surprising thing is that, [when dealing with] places that have a lot of natural resources, we are often unintentionally in business with very aggressive, violent, and repressive people at the other end of the supply chain.
MA: You said this includes products like the clothes we wear.
LW: That is right. We think we buy a lot of oil when we pay at the pump, but oil [is] the all natural resource [most] traded across borders. We’re buying oil all the time, even when we don’t think about it. So if you buy any clothes that are made with artificial fabrics, you’re buying oil. Anything that is plastic is made out of oil. Oil is in the creams we smear on our face, in our cosmetics, it might be in our shoes, it might be helping your sex life. Oil is everywhere in our lives and we pay for it all the time, which means that whenever we go to the checkout we may be sending some of our dollars, pounds, or euros to men who consider themselves to be our enemies.
MA: You use this phrase the resource curse. How exactly would you explain what we mean by the resource curse? You would think it would be a blessing.
LW: In some countries it is a blessing. I can explain what the differences are between the countries that are blessed and cursed by natural resources. But just to get a sense of how bad the resource curse is, especially for oil, I can put it this way. You can think about all the great progress the developing world has made over the last generation, I think of the great rise of China, India, South America, and even many parts of Africa, but not the oil-producing countries. The oil producing countries in the developing world are no richer, they’re no freer, and they’re no more peaceful than they were in 1980. That is remarkable. In these countries oil is not a blessing, it is a curse.
MA: Why is it a curse?
LW: It’s a curse because of one very old and very bad law at the international level that we take entirely for granted because it’s been around for so long. [It] is causing a tremendous amount of trouble in our world and we need to reform [it] if we possibly can. The rule in all of our countries [is] we will buy oil and other resources from whomever in other countries can control those resources by force. So if an authoritarian regime can keep a country under its cosh we will buy the oil from them. If a militia can get some tin out of the ground at gunpoint in the Congo it will be legal for us to buy that tin eventually from them. Our rule, the rule of the world for resources, is might makes right. That is what puts us into business with these aggressive and oppressive actors overseas.
MA: Is this rule essentially embedded in international law, or is this an unwritten rule?
LW: It’s an unwritten rule… There is nothing in international law that requires us to use this rule. We are all sovereign countries and we can make our own rules about who we think we should be buying resources from… We’ve used [the rule that we use now] for a long time and we take it for granted, but if you think about it, it makes no sense. If you and I get some guns and take over a petrol station down the street [then] no one thinks that you and I should get the legal right to sell off the gas and keep the money, but if you and I got some guns and took over the Government of Angola [then] you and I would have the right to sell the oil of Angola to all importing countries. So the rule of might makes right makes no sense when you think about it. It’s a rule that we all use, but it’s a rule that we have the right to change, and we should change it now.
MA: I’d really like to get a sense of how intertwined and deep this really is. Maybe one place to start digging a little deeper is how much of these natural resources we use. You described how much aluminium, steel, wood, and copper we use as a humanity. How can we get an understanding of the scope of this?
LW: It’s hard. You know there are seven billion people alive right now. Seven billion human beings, each with the desire every day to consume, to work, [and] to have a house over their heads. The resources we use are just gigantic in their scale. So if you could imagine a gigantic block of iron crashing down on the ground once a second, a block of iron that weighs fifty tonnes, that is how much iron the world uses every second. And with oil it’s even more. Put it this way, the world uses a thousand barrels of oil, that is 42,000 gallons of oil every second. You can just imagine three Olympic-size swimming pools full of this black goo disappearing in a shower of tiny sparks every second. Ninety percent of the world’s transportation works by oil; almost every plane, train, car or boat is oil powered. We don’t think about it much. Humanity uses gargantuan amounts of natural resources every single second of the day.
MA: You’ve said in your book that this is actually more than just being addicted to oil.
LW: We are addicted to oil. It would be hard to keep seven and a half billion people alive right now without oil. To solve the problem of the resource curse we should get off fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can and get onto alternative sources of energy. That is going to take a while, because we do need this combustible mud to keep our transportation systems going right now, and we use natural gas to heat our homes, make electricity, and so on. So we have to transition away from fossil fuels. We have to cure ourselves of our addiction to oil, but it is going to take a while. And the other side to the addiction is the countries that have oil. It’s not that the people are addicted to oil so much as the leaders are addicted to the money we [used to] pay for oil. So we get the oil, we send our money to the Saudis, the Iranians, the Qataris, and so on, and they use our money to keep themselves in power by buying the muscle and the loyalty they need to divide and rule. So they’re addicted to our money just as much as we’re addicted to their oil. It’s a mutually assured addiction, and that is something we really have to stop doing. It’s so dangerous.
MA: It’s a little bit paradoxical to this idea that these resource-rich countries are actually in some ways becoming poorer and less peaceful when you look at the population as a whole, while many states that are not oil-producing are getting richer, freer, and more peaceful. How do we explain this?
LW: Oil is the largest source of absolute power in the world. In our world, because we say might makes right, whoever can keep coercive control over oil wealth will get a big funnel full of money from the world as if it was coming down from the sky. They can use that money for whatever purposes they want. And in non-democratic countries sometimes the money will go to a militia like ISIS. We’ve also seen in Libya [that] they can use our money to buy more weapons, to pay for more soldiers, and sometimes our money goes to an authoritarian regime… We’ve seen [this] over the years with Saddam [Hussein] and [Muammar] Gaddafi, and now still the Saudis, who have used our money to repress their own population [and] to spread this extreme intolerant version of Islam… that we now see mutating into jihadi extremism [around the world]. Not only in the Middle East and Asia, but also in the west. So oil is a tremendous source of unaccountable power in our world. That is why it’s so dangerous, not only for the people of the oil-producing country, but eventually to us too.
MA: One of the things you point out is that it seems almost inescapable that we as consumers cannot be part of this. Now, on one hand, we don’t see the devastation when we go and buy a new blouse or a new pair of pants or a new pair of shoes. It just looks like a perfectly legal transaction. However, you say unless we buy our food in an organic farm our shopping is saturated with oil at every stage. So what about the individual consumption?
LW: There are ways that consumers can help to convince our leaders to get us out of this terrible business [of] buying blood oil whenever we go shopping. There is a website called Clean Trade [where] you will see there are strategies that consumers can use. For example, Clean Trade will soon [have] an index of the big oil companies so you can check which ones are doing more business with authoritarian regimes. [This means] when you need to fill up your car with petrol you can go to a company that does less business with authoritarians. There are also some boycotts we can use to help convince our Chinese friends not to buy oil from these authoritarian countries. Consumers can help put pressure on our leaders to change this business that we’re in, but it has to be a political change. We do need to change our own laws in our own countries to say [we] will no longer be in business with these aggressive and oppressive actors overseas. We just don’t want to buy oil from those guys anymore and send them our money with which they’re causing so much trouble.
MA: In terms of foreign policy, you noted that, while there is so much power wrapped up in the oil industry and the supply chains, these oil companies are not quite as influential as we tend to think. It sounds like you’re a little bit more pluralistic in showing that there are these multiple influences, including geopolitical considerations. But you mention even the small NGO can make an impact?
LW: I’ve been getting more optimistic over the past ten years as I’ve been doing this research about the changes that can be made, even against very powerful actors. Big oil companies are doing what they do. They’ve done a lot of questionable deals overseas and are very powerful at home, but if we’re convinced that we need to make a change we can win battles. Even small NGOs have won big battles. Let me give you an example of that. Everyone in this part of the world knows that we need more transparency around oil. It’s totally okay with the people of oil-producing countries how much their government is getting for the oil being sold off, but the big oil companies do not want to be more transparent about the deals they are making. There was an NGO over here that convinced a couple of American senators that it would be a good idea to have more transparency in the oil industry. They produced a bill which went nowhere at first because [the oil industry lobby] was so strong. However, then the window of opportunity came [up with] that terrible big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was a terrible spill, but the silver lining was that [during that] summer the oil industry lobbyists couldn’t get their phone calls returned in Washington because oil was just toxic. The senators reintroduced and passed a bill requiring all American oil companies to become more transparent. And the really inspiring thing about this story is [that] once the United States required transparency of its companies Europe put in the same requirement in Norway, and now Canada [has too]. There is a real movement throughout the west to require that transparency of oil companies. We didn’t think we were going to get that for ten [or] twenty years, but now it’s law in all of these countries. Progress can happen if we have our stuff ready to go [because] the window of opportunity will open.
MA: It’s interesting you mention Norway here and in the book as an example of a resource-rich country that are not [part of] the resource curse. Why is that?
LW: There is a distinction between countries where resources are a blessing and resources are a curse. Norway is doing so well with its oil. You can imagine that the pension funds there are filled for decades in advance, and they are very good on gender equality and public services. Norway is doing spectacularly well with its oil wealth [because] the government was accountable to the people when the oil first came in. When the government is accountable to the people and the people force the government to use the oil money for public goods [the] oil can be a blessing. When the oil money goes to strong men or militias [the] oil can be a curse. That is why we see such trouble in this arc of oil from Russia through the Middle East into Africa, that is where oil came in [and] the government was not accountable to the people, and that is why the curse sets in so severely.
MA: So that is the curse on the side of the human effect. We’re also simultaneously dealing with the climate effect, which would imply that even when oil is a blessing on the human effect, as in the case of Norway, it may still be a curse for the planets overall health.
LW: That is definitely true and, as I said, we should get off fossil fuels as quickly as we feasibly can. We just have to do both of these things at once. Think about the big stories that came out of Paris in 2017. One story was the climate negotiations, which were at least a bit more hopeful than Copenhagen had been. The other story was those terrible attacks in Paris by ISIS operatives. We just have to try to tackle both of these problems at once; the growth of climate change and the spread of violent extremism. They’re both difficult problems, but the movements can work together. The best strategy on autocrats is to [have] alternative plan for energy for all of our countries. We can work together and get a win-win solution on energy from both.
MA: Let’s keep going down this solution path that you’ve been laying out. You were talking about the international rule and you have talked about this idea of effectiveness.
LW: Effectiveness is the fancy lawyer’s word for might makes right. So, for example, when Saddam Hussein took over Iraq in a coup, the world started buying oil from him. And then years later when ISIS took over those same wells the world made it legal to buy oil from ISIS. Our default rule is effectiveness; it is might makes right and that is what is driving violence and oppression overseas. When we say the most coercive men in the country will get our money [then] the most coercive men will fight to get on top and use our money to stay on top.
MA: Are there any constraints in international law, or none at all?
LW: No. We can change our own laws on our own soil for our own people. And the hopeful thing is that we don’t have to invent any new international organisations [and] we don’t have to sign any new treaties. All we have to do is get our own country’s laws to line up with principles that we already deeply believe in. The big principle is just the intuitive one that we believe already, which is a country belongs to its people. Over here in America Abraham Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “A country belongs to its people”. That means it is the people and not just coercive power who should have the ultimate right to say what should happen to the resources in a country. That is a principle we already believe. Leaders around the world already speak this language. [They say] that a country belongs to its people; the oil belongs to its people. Best of all, there are already major treaties signed where it says that all people shall for their own ends freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources. So the bad old rule of effectiveness that is causing all this trouble in the world, and the better modern rule that all countries belong to their people, is already deeply embedded in the global culture. Leaders talk the talk [and] the treaties are already signed. We just have to align our own laws with this principle we already believe to make progress against might makes right.
MA: That would be country by country.
LW: That is right. And any country can be a leader in this regard. New Zealand is certainly well placed to be a leader. New Zealand could [move to] clean trade tomorrow by passing an act saying [they would] on a certain date no longer purchase oil from any government which is not minimally accountable to its people. And I do mean minimal. You don’t have to be Norway to sell oil with the consent of the people. It’s basically just asking if the people can find out what is happening to their resources and, if a majority strongly dislikes what the government is doing, could the majority stop what the government is doing. If a government is not accountable to its people in that minimal extent then by our own principle… we shouldn’t be buying that oil.
MA: Is this what you are calling the clean trade framework?
LW: That is right. Clean trade is the framework. It’s a couple of laws. We should just pass a law saying that gradually we are going to taper off our imports of all authoritarian oil. And then we [should] pass a second set of laws to try to encourage the big Asian importers like China and India to announce that they will stop buying authoritarian oil at some point in the future.
MA: I know you are advocating for minimising our use of non-renewable resources, and you use some examples in the book about how much depletion there really is on these non-renewable resources. I think you used Cyprus as an example of a country that used to be rich in copper and now has nothing left. Are we facing at some point what used to be called peak oil? Are we facing a complete depletion of this natural resource?
LW: Anyone who tells you that they know what the future of oil is are very optimistic. Predictions about oil are notoriously difficult. When I started this book ten years ago the talk was that the oil would soon run out. Then the shale revolution started in the United States and now peak oil is not talked about [much]. The thing that is almost undeniably true is that we’re not running out of oil so much as running out of cheap oil. The easy oil in the world is draining down and the oil that we are now accessing is harder, more expensive, and more environmentally dangerous to extract. So we’re not running out of oil, but running out of cheap oil. And the oil that we’re getting is much dirtier to extract. So it really is time to start transitioning away from fossils to cleaner sources of energy.
MA: The United States is an oil-producing country at this point because of the fracking and the shale oil that you were just describing. Would you call the United States a resource-rich country?
LW: Sure. The United States is a major energy producer. It has been for a long time. The energy in the United States, especially the fossils [that] powered it through the twentieth century, helped it become a great economic power. Oil and other resources in the United States are very significant in their absolute volume, but as a percentage of the economy they’re quite small, maybe two [to] three percent of GDP. It’s about the same as restaurants. So oil [and other minerals] in the United States [are] not a big part of the economy. That is why, along with being democratic, oil doesn’t curse the United States very much. It’s a similar story in Canada and the UK. Australia has enough natural resources that it did better than other western countries during the recent financial crisis. So if you have a moderate amount of resources as part of your GDP then resources can contribute to the economic activity. It’s really when you get most of your economic activity coming from oil, especially if you’re not democratic. That is when trouble starts to set in.
MA: Let’s now look back at the solutions that you’re proposing. For example, the laws that could be enacted in the purchasing countries. Is there a downside to refusing to buy from these oil-rich resource curse countries, in which even the very poorest may be desperate to have even pennies from? Or are you suggesting that it will force these dictatorships to reform?
LW: It will encourage dictatorships to reform. If they’re losing their customers for the oil then there will be a more responsive government in power before long. In terms of the people who are poor in these oil-producing countries, I take this very seriously and I’ve studied this quite a bit. In order to convince yourself that we need to change the way we do business for oil and other resources you just have to look at the resource curse seriously. Look at that statistic I gave you not so long ago. Oil-rich countries are no richer than they were in 1980. And there is a great deal of extreme poverty in many of these oil-producing states. You can think of the big ones in Africa such as Nigeria, Angola, and so on. In Angola there is a fantastically rich [but] corrupt regime living extravagant lifestyles, while it’s also the worst place in the world to be a child. It has the highest child mortality rates in the world. Oil and other resources in these countries, in general, are not helping the poor. It really is an impediment to development in so many places. That is why we have to do everything we can to encourage governments to become more responsive to the people of the country, so that the people can get more of the benefits of the natural resources of their country.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.