Tuesday, 22 March 2011

All About Oil... an incidental note and a poem

The cry that It is all about oil! have gone up several times in the last ten years regarding engagement in the Middle East. I am not concerned here with the degree of truth in the claim, though personally I believe all is a great exaggeration. There is, I suspect, very little all in international relations.

What the cry suggests is that it is all about the big oil companies and their share holders. That is no doubt part of it, but what it forgets is how much oil is about us too in a world where access to oil is vital.

I am thinking here of the fuel blockade of September 2000 where, in the face of rapidly rising prices and a promised increase in fuel tax, farmers and taxi drivers instigated a blockade of refineries. This is a brief summary of the events and their effects:

Protests were triggered on September 5, 2000 when it was announced that fuel prices were to rise again following a rise in the price of crude oil. The Channel Tunnel was blockaded in protest on September 6. On September 7, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Chesire, was blockaded. Protests spread rapidly with more refineries blockaded on September 8 resulting in nation-wide panic buying of fuel on September 9. On Sunday, September 10, the protests had closed Britain's largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands, and huge queues at gas stations were reported. By Tuesday, September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK's eight refineries. Over half of Britain's gas stations were shut. The protest ended almost as quickly as it had begun. On September 14, the Stanlow blockage ended and on September 15 the first fuel deliveries were reaching some gas stations, although it was estimated that 90 percent of gas stations were empty of fuel.

The italics are mine, but I well remember the event as I was about to fly off to Trinity College Dublin to be their first International Writing Fellow and I didn't know whether, in view of the lack of fuel, a coach would be running to the airport. The whole country seemed to be coming to a stop. That's after just a week of no fuel. Nor was this about me getting to an airport - it was ambulances getting to hospitals and all the rest. This was all about oil.

This is not to argue that a nation should do anything to ensure its supply of oil, certainly not an argument for war, but the flow of oil is clearly important. Oil isn't just about them - the hugely wealthy - it is also about people's daily lives. In 2007 there was the Russian oil blockade to Belarus that took just three days to reach crisis point.

As I also recall, the shift in the western view of Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 happened to coincide with the squeeze on oil by the OPEC countries.

In 1972, the price of crude oil was about $3.00 per barrel. By the end of 1974, the price of oil had quadrupled to over $12.00. The Yom Kippur War started with an attack on Israel by Syria and Egypt on October 5, 1973. The United States and many countries in the western world showed support for Israel. Because of this support, several Arab exporting nations and Iran imposed an embargo on the countries supporting Israel. While these nations curtailed production by 5 million barrels per day other countries were able to increase production by a million barrels. The net loss of 4 million barrels per day extended through March of 1974 and represented 7 percent of the free world production.

Any doubt the ability to control crude oil prices had passed from the United States to OPEC was removed during the Arab Oil Embargo. The extreme sensitivity of prices to supply shortages became all too apparent when prices increased 400 percent in six short months.

So moral grounds slowly shift with economic pressure. People begin to 'see reason', to 'see the other side'. Realpolitik changes hearts and minds.

Most wars have, at bottom, been about resources and control of resources. Under conditions of global warming the prediction is wars about water. If an alternative to oil was found the oil producing countries would suffer economic collapse. Like all slogans which are meant to suggest one thing, 'It's all about oil' is about a great deal more.


The poem is one in An English Apocalypse (2001), from 'The Pickets' section. The poem, written just weeks after the blockade itself - as was the whole Apocalypse sequence - responds to the fuel blockade of 2000 and how, through technology and legislation, the power seemed to have shifted from unions with their history of solidarity and ideology to individuals with a brief common interest and no ideology, except, as I remember quite clearly, the flag of St George around which the taxis and trucks gathered. It felt like the beginning of a new psychological order (as it did in 'Orgreave', another poem in the same section, about the miners' strike). The new order wasn't lovable, nor is it now, which may be partly why the rising of people - the people as the phrase has it - in the Arab world seems so exhilarating.


Where ideology fails, mere livelihood
takes over, seeking its bottom line,
wherever that is, in vision or in blood

or further regions impossible to define.
The cross of St George flutters on the pole
behind men picketing in a benign

huddle, comfy, but barely in control
of the world that they are bringing into being.
They form a solid yeomanry in droll

revolt against powers that even now are fleeing
the cities they rule from. From what far regions
have the yeoman risen? Where are their all-seeing

leaders and prophets? Their everyday religions
are bottom-line affairs with few demands,
offering basic warmth for mild allegiance,

composed of mostly affordable deodands:
crumbs for the ducks, a tip for the paper-boy,
a Christmas kiss, holding a mother's hands,

comfort for the dying. I'm thinking of Joy,
Ruby, Ted and Jerry, their children trapped
in kitchens and sheds a real storm would destroy

in minutes, and Stan, hollow-eyed, flat-capped,
whose tools we inherited, and Percy Bunn
the handyman and glazier who dropped

dead at the church fete, and gangling Ron
the caretaker, whose wife left and he drank
for weeks, and every picket the son

(or daughter) of people of such social rank
as drop away now, lost in the dawn retreat,
the tankers rolling past them, faces blank.

Sometimes being of foreign birth can make one feel like a sad, slightly removed observer, not one of Benjamin's angels of history, but one of the fleas of history, hopping around on history's back.


Anonymous said...

A facinating and scientific address on peak oil and energy use, in an exponentially growing human world dependent on oil, by Albert Bartlett.

An article here in the Telegraph:

"A few weeks before the tsunami struck Fukushima’s uranium reactors and shattered public faith in nuclear power, China revealed that it was launching a rival technology to build a safer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper network of reactors based on thorium."

Thorium is 1000 times less dangerous an element than uranium and was first mooted as a possible nuclear fuel sixty years ago, but the Americans decided against it because it didn't produce plutomium for bombs.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for this Anon. Fascinating indeed. If this alternative is really as (relatively) clean and easy and cheap to produce as the article suggests then I also say good luck to that tragically repressive country; at least they appear to be doing something right, and giving one example for the West to follow.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Mark.

There's also another site, The Oil Drum, where many energy industry professionals (geologists, seismologists, engineers etc) discuss their area of expertise. I came across it a few weeks after last year's Gulf disaster started; switching from trying to gather info at the conspiracy sites like Above Top Secret, Icke, Fulford and Alex Jones, to finding rational, experienced heads on The Oil Drum.

There's a poster there, Tin Foil Hat Guy, who seems to really know his stuff. A lot of retired, rich engineers shooting the breeze.


There was an interesting segment on Newsnight tonight, highlighting the hypocrisy of Dave and his chims rushing in to Libya, putting out the line they are doing it for the 'Libyan people', and then glad-handing the Saudi king hours later and not mentioning the killings in Yemen.

What I find distasteful is the language, Cameron being referred to as 'brave' in the HoC, as if deciding to send in others into harms way whilst you sit on your fanny thinking up soundbites, is an act of 'bravery'.

George S said...

Re: 'Dave and his chums', or whoever is in charge. The argument that 'if you cant do everything do nothing' seems a poor one to me. The world of realpolitik is the one we actually live in. It is only in Libya that the danger of large scale massacres currently exists. Gaddafi has threatened as much. Governments are responsive to mood and if there were to be similar threats of massacre in Saudi Arabia and Yemen there would be consternation and talk of action. I doubt anyone went into Libya gladly.

Just because realpolitik is fraught with too many factors it doesn't mean that we should always assume the worst intentions when states act. There are such things as humanitarian crises, and unless we consider our specific countries to be uniquely evil, there is room for supposing that among the complex self-serving interests there are proper human ones. That combination is what constitutes life as we know it. Rhetoric is, in some ways, a necessary something else.

The last point is cheap, Anon. Sitting on their fannies is what all political figures do. Their bravery is not to be compared with those of front line troops, but political courage consists of facing failure and condemnation. This is not to defend Cameron in particular, or any other leader of any party: it's the same for whoever takes decisions.

And what do we do with our own 'brave' humanitarian talk, me included? Sit on our fannies.

Anonymous said...

Hi this is a different anon from our learned friend above. I discovered yesterday that the Fukushima nuclear power plant is exactly the same age and design as the one at Chernobyl. This tiny little fact is being kept from the public by the nuclear power industries around the world because well, it isn't great PR is it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say I don't agree with the UN resolution 1973. I do; but that doesn't negate the fact of what I sincerely thought of Cameron, being a bit too smug about kicking off his first bit of ultimate theatre in the grand game.

I remember writing prior to him getting in, something along the lines of him loking very keen to send in 'the boys', and now he has, my instinct seems to have been borne out, as first of all it was a simple stopping of the colonel killing civilians, and now Cameron seems keen to extend it.

All of a sudden he's trying to act like a barrack-room barrister, interpeting the phrases, hence the reticence of the Arab League and China, Russia and Germany voicing concern. You may call it 'cheap', but that is what I feel. The speech he made about 'freedom' blah blah blah, as if he's doing this because he's such a nice guy, I found nauseating. Sure, great thing to stop Gaddaffi, but please, don't try and make out it's all about equality ad freedom, because if that's the case, why doesn't this extend to getting vocal about Yemen the Saudi dictatorships shoting civilians?

I remember writing one myself. Please forgve the formatting, not enough space for the lines to appear in their original length.


Monsters trapped in human bodies jostle
war with world peace and un-tether your song
of hollow moral concepts swaddled
in a bright cloth of defunct language gone
daft in the spirit of this modern age.
Neo classic pillars of abstraction
with your artless blather of throwaway
lines, sow fear with the proliferation
of words like right punishment, vengence and
retribution. Bruiser gods raining word
shells upon our consciousness, blow minds bland
and sanitise banality to purge
your hearts of accountability when
debates cease and the naked dead return
your dividend of talk in crisp cold flesh
packaged in body bags and draped in the flags
you have hijacked. Come, hoodwink citizens,
lead them to believe your cause is just and
unrelated to commerce or cash black
gold below the surface of desert lands.

George S said...

What I get from your last post Anon 1 is that you don't like Cameron. Which is fine. My own feelings about him are conditioned by the fact that he is the leader of the party I didn't support. The fact he is an Eton toff plays a role in that, but it is not unexpected in the party which I do not support, so it's hardly news to me.

Your attack - both in the email and in the poem - is on hypocrisy. My suggestion is that attacks on hypocrisy are often themselves a touch dishonest, albeit unintentionally, because those who attack know full well that states do not act entirely out of virtue, nor do they really expect them to. What they (let's say 'we' since I don't dissociate myself from this) object to is the simplicity of the rhetoric aaddressed to complexity. Essentially we are saying that rhetoric presents us with simplicities that do not match up to the complexities.

That, at least, is what I assume to be the case. To replace the simplicity of one rhetoric with the simplicity of another in which the roles are reversed seems to me not to be of much help in facing a very complex reality.

Forgive me - I don't think the hypocrisy is conscious. I feel it articulates feelings sincerely held but I still don't see the sense of simply inverting the rhetorical formula. The rhetorical formula - at this distance, our distance - seems too absolute for me. As, of course, does Cameron's rhetoric. It's just that the rhetoric of a situation in which one is an actor is easily recognizable as such. A leader of any kind propounding a course of action employs, and always has employed, rhetoric. That is not in itself a crime. Nor are we - or indeed you, to judge from what you say at the head of you last comment, to the effect that you support resolution 1973 - disagreeing with the actual action to which the rhetoric points.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Think Mark Antony etc, in fact any of the 'great speeches' of which there used to be so many anthologies. It is a necessary political art.

People like us, who breathe language as though it were oxygen, noting its quality as an aesthetic-moral issue, know how to look through rhetoric. I just wouldn't bother to get on a high horse about it, if only because any horse I might have is not obliged to lead any charge. A prime minister's - any prime minister's - is.

P Lane Anon said...

Just to reply to the other Anon's comment about the "age and design" of the Japanese plant being the same as Chernobyl.

No it isn't, and the differences between them have been widely aired and discussed across the media and on the web.

It must be something to do with the culture around poetry that GS attracts superb discussion about literature and its widest concerns, but gets, well, this sort of thing about this sort of thing.

Coirí Filíochta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George S said...

I think the issue P Lane Anoymous was addressing was the elementary one of whether the Japanese nuclear power stations were of the same design and date as Chernobyl. Almost everything I have heard and read from nuclear experts here suggests that they were not. It would be useful, if they actually were, to have a source to point to.

I think 'the sort of thing' addressed is unsupported statements that contradict the majority of what seem to be disinterested statements. In any case if the Japanese stations were of the same age and structure as Chernobyl it should be easy enough to prove.

In the meantime Coiri, take your 'fuckings's and threats out of here, and don't come back with them. Come back without them if you care to, otherwise I'll just remove your comments. P Lane Anon owes you no apology at all.

George S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Sorry George if I caused a spat in your blog house.... my sources regarding information on the similarity between the two nuclear power stations were good (the best they could possibly be!) and my point was the intentional omission from media coverage of pointing up the similarity. Hence the experts who are widely airing and discussing are also not mentioning certain aspects. This does happen and probably more often than we think.
I think it is 'unhealthy' to only believe what is reported and discussed in the media and on the web.

George S said...

I don't mind spats, but I don't particularly like screaming. The odd scream now and then perhaps is OK.

I fully agree with you about scepticism regarding media and web talk. The UK experts I heard were firmly of the view that this was very different from Chernobyl. They had no stake in the matter, and the little I know about the state of care in the ex-Soviet Union and the state of care in Japan suggests something very different in attitude. And of course Chernobyl was not hit by the biggest earthquake recorded and by a vast tsunami. It just blew. The Japanese ones have not blown yet as far as we know.The problems are with cooling and some, as yet uncertain, leakage.

Reports from Japan are quite good with their don't knows.They don't keep saying, Everything is all right. That makes me a little less sceptical. But not wholly unscpetical either.