Book Review — Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World

Blood Oil by Leif Wenar

Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World by Leif Wenar is a realistic look at what goes into the items of our daily lives. Wenar holds the Chair of Philosophy & Law at King’s College London. After earning his Bachelor’s degree from Stanford, he went to Harvard to study with John Rawls, and wrote his doctoral thesis on property rights with Robert Nozick and T.M. Scanlon. He is a Fellow of the Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at The Murphy Institute of Political Economy, and a Fellow of the Program on Justice and the World Economy at The Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

We all know that oil runs the economy but even deeper it runs our lives. From the plastic we use to the fuel used to transport food to our stores, to the petroleum based fertilizers that help grow our food we are swimming in an ocean of oil. We also know that oil is found in countries where we would not do business with if they did not have oil. We rationalize our relations with tyrants because we need the oil. It’s not just oil. The raw materials that make our personal and industrial electronics work also come from countries with repressive governments. The relationships become more complex when we look at the larger picture. In the 1980s, Cuban troops guarded American oil interests in Angola. Angola used the money from oil purchases to buy arms to fight America’s allies. American money was being used to fund America’s enemies.
America looks to ensure Middle East security, to promote world stability rather than protect our imports. The majority of American oil imports come from Canada with only 15% or so from Saudi Arabia. It is still the Middle East that is in the news rather than the sizable imports from Africa and Latin America. Very few oil producing countries are democratic as well as only a few that are not corrupt. Wenar looks at what happens to oil producing countries. Many countries experience skyrocketing GDPs which creates the illusion that standard of living would increase. Wealth, however, tends to stay with the county’s leadership and elite. Most money does not trickle down to the people or the infra structure. Wenar explains that countries’ economies that produce raw materials are like an electrical grid. A good well-designed grid can handle a sudden influx in power and expand. A badly designed grid will overload, short, and destroy itself under similar situations. Countries like Norway easily handle the new oil wealth, diversify and prosper. Countries like Nigeria and Sierra Leone fall into corruption.

Two countries, centuries before, also ran into new wealth and how they used that wealth determined their future. Spain gained huge colonial possessions and pulled the natural resources and then stagnated. England, on the other hand, took in raw materials, like cotton, and created finished good and exported them — adding value to the raw materials. Spain faded and England grew. Countries like Canada and Norway have a diverse economy that will continue to function once the oil is gone. Angola, Nigeria, and others will drop into even more poverty. Even a country that is developed like Saudi Arabia will have large problems. The unemployment rate among the young is skyrocketing. Two-thirds of the Saudi population are under thirty. There are not enough, jobs even with the government creating superfluous civil servant positions. Saudi leadership needs high oil prices to fund its social services that help keep the population docile. An angry, unemployed, youth is not something that they are ready to handle.

In the opening of the book, Wenar helps to remind even the most socially conscious of how we promote the system of corruption, tyranny, and poverty. We might think we are doing to right thing buying organic oranges — No petroleum pesticides or fertilizers. But a closer look shows just how tainted the fruit is. Somewhere in Africa blood diamonds are being mined. 60% of all diamonds are used for industrial purposes. In China, these diamonds are used to make drill bits by underpaid workers living in a totalitarian society. The drill bits are exported to Mexico (or an, even more, corrupt oil producing country) and used to drill for oil, that is refined, sold as diesel, burned by a truck hauling organic oranges to your grocery store. In the big picture, your organic oranges are not petroleum free but also tainted by blood diamonds. The problem is, that today, there are so many steps taken to get something as simple as an orange that nothing you buy is guilt free.

Not all is doom and gloom. Wenar presents the case of how the slave trade was ended, simply on moral grounds and a few other successes against tyranny in modern times. The final section of the book covers solutions to some of the problems of we are experiencing. They are not perfect solutions but do offer a starting point and a place to begin discussing solutions. A very important and timely read.

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