The historical importance of unintended consequences
Historians encounter the workings of unintended consequences whether they deal with political institutions, ideas or demography. But there is probably no other branch of the discipline in which unintended consequences play such an important part as they do in environmental history. Consider the Aswan Dam. Begun in 1960 and completed in 1971, this archetypal Cold War prestige project was designed to 'build pyramids for the living' (in Nasser's words). It would control the Nile flood, allow its water to be used more systematically for irrigation, and generate electricity. These things the dam achieved. It also had serious unwanted consequences. To replace the silt that no longer came down the Nile, electricity from the dam had to go into manufacturing chemical fertilizer. Salinization, the scourge of irrigation regimes, increased without the flushing provided by the annual flood, while Egypt's irrigation canals became a breeding ground for the snails that carry schistosomiasis, a disease of the liver, intestines and urinary tract that now affects the entire population in many rural areas. Deprived of silt, the Nile Delta shrank, displacing people and depriving the Mediterranean of nutrients, which destroyed the sardine and shrimp fisheries. This was not quite the 'everlasting prosperity' Nasser had promised.
The unintended consequences of the Aswan Dam, like those of other great hydrological schemes from the Punjab to the Central Asian catastrophe of the Aral Sea, were regional in their effects. Other kinds of human impact on the environment have had global consequences. McNeill says that this is true of the unwitting world-historical role played by the American chemical engineer Thomas Midgely. In 1921, Midgely calculated that adding lead to petrol would make it burn better and prevent engine knock - it was a 'gift from God', said the first company to sell the fuel. Not until half a century later, by which time cars had burned 25 trillion liters, did public health concerns overcome industry resistance and usher in the unleaded era. Nor was leaded petrol Midgely's only legacy. In 1930, he invented Freon, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants, solvents and sprays. In the thirty years following World War Two, intensive use of CFCs created holes in the ozone layer that protects life on earth from ultraviolet radiation.
Beginning in the 1970s, scientific research and unusually prompt international action led to sharply reduced use of CFCs, over the protests of chemical manufacturers. On the other hand, some of the CFCs released into the atmosphere before the Montreal Protocol of 1987 will still be destroying ozone in 2087. Enhanced radiation will increase the risk of cataracts, damaged immune systems and skin cancers in humans; it will also continue to kill phytoplankton, the basis of ocean food chains.
The Aswan Dam and Thomas Midgely both have a place in John McNeill's excellent environmental history of the 20th century. McNeill has done a vast amount of research and his range is truly global. He discusses the effects of oil extraction from Tampico to the Niger delta, the problems caused by air pollution from the 'sulphuric triangle' between Dresden, Prague and Cracow to the Hanshin district of Japan; and on the subject of deforestation in the tropics ('one of the central events of our time') he draws on evidence from Indonesia as well as Brazil.
The growing resource crunch: Blood for Oil?
Since September 11th and the commencement of the "war on terror," the world's attention has been focused on the relationship between U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the seas of crude oil that lie beneath the region's soil. Michael Klare traces oil's impact on international affairs since World War II, revealing its influence on the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter doctrines. He shows how America's own wells are drying up as our demand increases; by 2010, the United States will need to import 60 percent of its oil. And since most of this supply will have to come from chronically unstable, often violently anti-American zones-the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, Latin America, and Africa-our dependency is bound to lead to recurrent military involvement.
Oil in the US is a major source of energy and a key driver of economic growth. The military machine also requires a large supply of oil. Local production is incapable of supporting this large demand and hence the US is now a net importer of oil. Klare traces the beginning of the alliance with the autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia during the WW II years, as the US oil production starting falling behind the demand. Under the agreement forged by President Roosevelt, the US would be obliged to protect the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia and would receive a guarantee of US firms’ dominance in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Carter administrations continued this policy of protecting and providing the Saudi regime with billions of dollars of advanced arms, in return for the drilling rights. At the same time, there was growing dissidence in the intellectual elite in the Arab world, who were perturbed by what they saw as US meddling in Arab affairs. Saddam Hussein’s attempt to take over the fertile oil fields of Kuwait only worsened the discontent. Though the Kuwaitis were grateful for US protection, radical Islamists’ fury only grew. This culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the US mainland.
The energy strategy adopted by the Bush administration does not break from tradition, and carries on increasing the dependence on petroleum. There is, and Klare documents this beautifully in relation to petroleum, a very pathological cycle that could be easily stopped. The US insists on cheap oil, this leads to bloodshed and high oil prices; this comes back to lower quality of life for the workers, and so on. As he points out, the pipelines cannot be protected. American policy makers are deceiving the public when they suggest they can stabilize the Middle East and protect cheap oil. Not only can the pipelines not be protected, but also on America's current consumption path, according to the author, the Gulf States would have to double production to keep up with American demand. He is also intellectually powerful in painting a future picture when China, Russia, and Europe are in armed competition with the USA for energy from Central Asia, Latin America, under the Spratley Islands, and other regions with proven oil reserves.
Cheap oil has become a mantra, and military power has become the unquestioned means of achieving that. However, the US doesn't have enough guns or blood to stabilize a world that it antagonizes every time it deploys into an "occupation" mode, and cheap oil is going to be extremely expensive in terms of American blood on the floor. Cheap oil for the US is a major contributor to unemployment and destabilization within Arabia. Klare insists that buying oil from Saudi Arabia subsidizes terrorism. Buying cheap oil from Saudi Arabia increases the number of unemployed who might be inspired to become terrorism. Klare is also very effective in objectively criticizing the manner in which the US Administrations have integrated anti-terrorism initiatives with energy-protection initiatives. Bin Laden is still at large, but we have an occupation army sitting on top of the Iraqi oil fields.
The book ends as intelligently as it begins, with emphasis on getting to a post-petroleum economy. We could start with neighborhood level solar power, efficient wind power, energy conservation (which must also apply to water), a gradual elimination of chlorine-based and petroleum-based industries, a move toward self-sustenance across the board, and what Klare cites as his big three steps:
1) Divorce energy purchases from security commitments---stop tolerating dictators and arming terrorist nations for the sake of cheap oil.
2) Reduce our reliance on imported oil, drastically.
3) Prepare the way for a transition to a post-petroleum economy that includes conservation, hybrid vehicles, enhanced public transportation, and usage of renewable sources of energy like solar energy, wind power and so on.
In Something New Under the Sun, McNeill infuses a substrate of ecology with a lively historical sensibility to the significance of politics, international relations, technological change, and great events. He charts and explores the breathtaking ways in which we have changed the natural world with a keen eye for character and a refreshing respect for the unforeseen in history. He introduces us to little-known figures like Thomas Midgely, the chemical engineer, who, McNeill claims, had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in earth history. From Midgely's work with General Motors came the inventions of leaded gasoline and of Freon, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons that drift into the stratosphere and rupture ozone molecules. McNeill recounts episodes of environmental disaster -- the mercury poisoning of Japan's Mina Mata Bay, the death of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia -- but shows too the successes of environmental policy in reversing pollution of the air and water. He fashions his story without pronouncements of doom or sermons on the ethical lapses of humankind.
McNeill assesses the ecological course we have taken in the twentieth century as an interesting evolutionary gamble. We have become exquisitely adapted to particular circumstances -- a stable climate, cheap energy, rapid economic growth. But our fossil fuel-based civilization is so ecologically disruptive that it undermines the stability of these conditions. McNeill does not speculate on the consequences, but his insights illuminate the new path we have made in this global century.
In his path breaking Resource Wars, world security expert Michael T. Klare alerted us to the role of resources in conflicts in the post-Cold War world. Now, in Blood and Oil, he concentrates on a single precious commodity, petroleum, while issuing a warning to the United States-its most powerful, and most dependent, global consumer. With clarity and urgency, Blood and Oil delineates the United States' predicament and cautions that it is time to change the country's energy policies, before it spends the next decades paying for oil with blood.
Klare insists that the US needs to work on three key areas in order to achieve energy autonomy and integrity.
i. A “paradigm shift” with regards the way the US thinks about its energy needs.
ii. No more oil for protection policy for undemocratic and terrorist breeding nations.
iii.Reduction in US dependence on imported oil by decreasing consumption by:
a. Improved fuel efficiency of light vehicles.
b. Development of new types of vehicles – especially hybrids, and hydrogen fueled vehicles.
c. Enhance the appeal of mass transit.
Klare makes it clear that if the US does not heal itself from the inside out, that no amount of guns, blood, or destruction will save it from the inevitable implosion of the unstable places where oil is to be found.
The two books have different geographic focus and starkly different styles, within some commonality in themes. In particular, both are environmental histories with a common underlying theme of unintended consequences: McNeill records mankind's unintended impact on the ecology, while Klare documents the unintended consequences of US oil policy. At the same time, the two authors have dramatically different styles: McNeill provides a dispassionate and painstaking analysis, while Klare's style is passionate and at times indignant. Interestingly, both appear to have an underlying moral commitment: McNeill's commitment to the natural environment which mankind disrupts and affects, and Klare's outrage at destructive and self serving pursuit of US oil interests. This makes for compelling reading.