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Petroleum Inequality: the Dark Story Behind Developing Nations & Fossil Fuels

Petroleum Inequality: the Dark Story Behind Developing Nations & Fossil Fuels

Last month, we talked (in part) about the current coal crises in South Africa, alluding to a deeper issue in the process. Because behind this crisis lies the horrid rancid skeleton of colonialism.

The coal trade isn’t an issue that belongs solely to South Africa. The same basic pattern can be seen in many former colonised nations, excluding settler nations where the native populations have more or less been absorbed by colonial powers. This pattern includes countries such as India and Africa and more recently created nations impacted by forced separation and plundering, such as Iraq and Iran. 

The primary tenant is that colonial forces have deliberately held back the progress of developing nations. Or, in most modern cases, the nation in question has been plunged into prolonged warfare by external military interference, resulting in the destabilisation of the economy. 

But why should being an invaded nation, even one that has been liberated, affect fossil fuel production?

Petroleum Inequality

The very simplified explanation.

In essence, we can think of each nation as its own little ‘island’. Each island advances in a similar fashion, with some stark differences along the lines of technology, social factors and environmentalism. 

The reason for this similarity is that certain technological advances allow us, as humans, to affect certain other changes in our environment. Without the invention of steam, we couldn’t have built the engines which powered trains connecting Europeans with their neighbours and Americans with their neighbouring states. 

But to get to the train-building stage, the Western world needed two other processes to occur. They needed money and political stability to create an inventive, machine-based nation. 

For most of our industrial history, coal has been the power on which our inventions, cities, and industry depend. The ‘we’ under discussion here refers to the Western colonial powers, particularly Britain and, later on, America. 

Further growth, power and wealth came from establishing small colonies to mine resources and labour. And by the height of colonialism, in the mid-19th to early 20th century, the British Empire, the leading colonial power, was doing reasonably alright for itself.

Petroleum Inequality

The collapse of the Empire. 

The fundamental principle of colonialism is that a captive society can be run with minimal expenditure of resources whilst also turning a profit. It does this by indoctrinating enough communities, often without a sense of prior nationhood, into giving over the brunt of their capital and labour force. In return, a figurehead who supports the colonial power as a puppet is established, while most of the economy is turned over to producing materials for the colonial power. 

With the collapse of the British Empire between the end of the Second World War and the early sixties, the previous colonial nations suddenly faced a power vacuum with no colonial interference. The result has varied between nations but has generally been less than favourable. Countries that previously had little or no economy, with no training in governance, were suddenly given the reigns to a nation they had no idea how to run. 

Even in actively occupied territories, like those in the war-torn Gaza Strip, this same trend repeats, with the power vacuum leading to a period of unstable revolution, political disputes and, as we’ve discussed, an underground crime syndicate which takes the place of a fully functioning governmental body. Unfortunately, this last point describes the state of South Africa today and explains why it is so hard for the country to pivot away from the coal issue.

So how does colonialism stop environmentalism?

As the Western world’s progress once relied heavily on coal, so do emerging nations today. Green energy takes a stable nation willing to invest resources into research. It also requires a system where the monopoly on carbon-emitting technologies isn’t so complete. 

Prior to the last decade, most developed countries were still very anxious to secure carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Since then, the cost of greener technologies, many of which were available already, have plummeted in cost, making renewable energy far more affordable. We’re still nowhere near perfecting this model — for instance, even with the increase of electric cars and recyclable materials, the act of road building itself is still a heavy carbon activity. But the last decade's success has reduced the profitability of coal and carbon-based fossil fuels while increasing the amount of research funding for green alternatives. 

Capitalism, for all its faults, has been useful, at least in promoting this change, because the free market has continued to shift towards the production of cheaper, greener alternatives. Of course, this change is not across the board, and our consumption levels are still in excess of where we need to be for a stabilised economy. But we can do better now with the technology we have.

Handouts don’t fix everything.

While we can speed the process in less developed nations, the production of energy and power is central to the running of a country. For many nations, limiting the amount of coal they can produce is akin to putting a cork-stopper on their progress. More pressing issues, such as overpopulation, rapidly growing urbanised areas and food production, take presence over implementing any green strategy. This is also why COP27, the environmental summit, met with such mixed emotions last year, as nations fought over the amount of allowable carbon ‘leeway’ they should be allowed, given their situation as developing nations.

As evidenced in South Africa, the corruption surrounding the coal supply also makes it hard to implement any meaningful shift towards greener alternatives. South Africa is a country that is hostage by corrupt politicians and criminal gangs, which led to the recent power shortages which have plagued the country. 

So where do we go from here?

Sadly, there is no clear answer, as the ‘right’ direction depends largely on a moral argument. On the one hand, we’re heading towards a global climate catastrophe where, by the year 2100, the mean temperature could be as high as 3℃ — perhaps not world-ending, but enough to cause millions of deaths, destroy habitats and radically change the earth’s biosphere for centuries to come. 

On the other hand, many developing nations, especially those embroiled in warfare or trying to unite, as South Africa is, are already at a critical point in their development. We know from past experience that we can’t simply step in and take control of a country without completely undermining and collapsing the political structure.

The good news.

The silver lining in this story is that nations are already beginning to make the change themselves. India and China are prime examples of this, developing countries where coal production has levelled off massively since 2010. Both have very different political attitudes but, as self-governing nations, have come to utilise the benefits of cheaper, cleaner energy alternatives.

Although we can’t, and shouldn’t, force it by will, we can look to introduce cheaper energy alternatives into the market of developing nations. Adoption is the key to reversing the trend of global carbon dominance. It won’t be easy, but we can help the transition of developing nations organically, as the West has done with its market.

All it takes to begin is a little cooperation. 


About the Author

About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch 

James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.

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