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Post-oil visions - Financial Times on Carbon Democracy

Decca Muldowney23 March 2012

In a week in which George Osborne has announced a £3bn tax break  to help BP and others drill new deep wells in pristine waters off the north of Scotland, it seems clear that, even after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,  the relationship between politics and oil in Britain is closer than ever.

On the other side of the pond, President Obama has reaffirmed his committment to the new oil pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf and, in a bid to quell Republican criticism, has stated that his administration is, "drilling all over the place right now."

In such a climate, it seems unsurprising that Ed Crooks, writing in the Financial Times in response to Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy,  considers whether oil can be as much as political curse as a blessing.

Framing his review with a interrogation of the idea of 'resource curse' - that a strong natural resources sector can actually damage economic growth across the board - Crooks argues that the relationship between mineral wealth and politics is far from simple. He finds Timonthy Mitchell's "sweeping overview of the relationship between fossil fuels and political institutions" both "engrossing and frustrating," but praises his arguments for adding "layers of depth and complexity to the accounts of how resource wealth and economic development are linked."

Placing Mitchell's contribution in historical context, Crooks writes that,

Much of the book amounts to a critical dialogue with Daniel Yergin's best-selling The Prize, the rip-roaring history of oil in the 20th century. Where Yergin tells the stories of swashbuckling entrepreneurs and other colourful individuals, Mitchell focuses instead on the roles of ideology, power relations and industrial logic in shaping political structures and the energy systems that support them. For him, it was the coal age that fostered democratic politics, by encouraging the emergence of organised labour. In the oil age that followed, new, more capital-intensive, geographically dispersed centres of energy production emerged, increasing the power of authoritarian governments.

Despite the book's academic foundations, Crooks highlights Mitchell's ability to yield "rich rewards" through historical anecdotes and "thought-provoking insights" such as, "the observation that the huge arms purchases by Arab states are a form of 'institutionalised waste', more to do with recycling petrodollars to support jobs and activity in the west than with the genuine military needs of those countries." Crooks is also careful to draw out Mitchell's key political conclusions, writing that,

[Carbon Democracy] ends with a reflection on the two limits that the world may now be approaching: supply constraints that prevent us from meeting an ever-rising demand for oil, and climate change that threatens the conditions that have allowed our societies to develop.

These supply limits have the potential to radically change global society. "For one reason or another," Crooks argues, "we may not be able to rely on the unrestrained use of fossil fuels in the 21st century the way we did in the 20th."  The end of oil, like oil itself, might be a blessing as much as a curse. While Crooks is wary that "the greatest curse of all will be not having oil when we want it", Mitchell suggests that the post-oil age offers the potential for "more democratic futures".

Visit the Financial Times to read the review in full.

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