Petrotyranny: the world's worst enemy

Don't be fooled - CNN may not report it, but it's major oil companies that are keeping democracy down

Dateline: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

By John Bacher

In experiencing movies, commercial broadcasting and the mass circulation press, what is astonishing is how they fail to capture the biggest problem of our time - the blight of petrotryanny. This is the continuing ability of dictatorships to keep themselves in power through the manipulation of vast pools of oil wealth. The secrecy of this problem hides the reality of a path toward a democratic and environmentally sustainable peaceful world, free of the blight of terrorism.

How many Canadians are aware of the long struggle of the democracy movement in Myanmar (Burma) against one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships, supported by powerful multinational oil corporations? What percentage of Canadian voters have even heard of its heroic democractic leader, the frequently imprisoned champion of nonviolence, Aung San Suu Kyi? Who knows that one of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world today is the brutal dictatorship of Sudan? Or that Sudan’s tyranny is financed by a host of Canadian oil corporations? How many know that terrorist strategist Osama bin-Laden is funded by prominent friends in the oil rich dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?

It was to expose the neglected, ugly cancer of petrotryanny on the earth’s biosphere that I set out, four years ago, to demonstrate how, although war, oil and dictatorship come together in a toxic brew, this deadly poison can be cured through a good application of the remedies of democracy and environmental protection.

The beautiful vision of a democratic peace was first dreamed of by the prophetic German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. He reasoned that only dictators unaccountable to an electorate would dare to launch aggressive wars.

Kant’s prophecies have certainly come true in the 20th century. Many countries with supposedly ancient animosities toward each other - for example France and Germany - became friends after both embraced democracy. With the nonviolent overthrow of the Serbian and Croatian dictatorships, the entire European continent has finally embraced a democratic peace. This has rapidly ended the supposed intractable animosities between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians in the Balkans. This has provided protection to minority Muslim communities that in many other parts of the world - notably Kashmir and Palestine - have used extremist terrorism in response to various injustices.

One of the easiest ways to eliminate dictatorships is to cut off the tribute that democracies pay to their rulers for their old growth timber, fossil fuels, narcotics and minerals. Most of these products are harmful to the environment, especially when produced in the conditions imposed by repressive governments.

Both absolute dictatorships and semi-democracies lack effective environmental regulations. These laws are given life in democracies by a free press, competing political parties and ecology groups. Oil produced in dictatorships causes alarming environmental degradation. Commonly oil pipelines are not buried, but exposed to the elements which frequently cause massive leaks and spills.

The severe environmental damage caused by dictatorships is one of the most important areas of their vulnerability. This causes brave environmentalists concerned for the earth, air, water and wildlife to oppose these dictatorships at the risk of prolonged torture and imprisonment.

Environmentalists in democracies champion the causes of their fellow activists persecuted by dictatorships through such efforts as boycotting corporations that do business with tyrannies. Through such campaigns, the only corporations operating in democratic states still doing business in many dictatorships such as Myanmar are petroleum, forestry and mining corporations. These are less vulnerable to consumer boycotts spearheaded by human rights, labour and environmental groups.

Even when oil rich dictatorships do not deliberately promote terrorism, the lack of a free press, parliamentary enquiry and exposure by citizen activism, causes wealthy families in them to subsidize their activities without fear of arrest or imprisonment. This is the situation in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Until the outrage caused by the World Trade Center bombing, these countries provided diplomatic recognition to the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan which provides sanctuary for Osama bin Laden.

The bold and brave vision of a democratic world free of oil has been eloquently expressed by Oronto Douglas, a Nigerian environmentalist who served as an attorney for a martyr in his country’s democracy movement, author Ken Saro-Wiwa. Douglas is a leader in the No More Oil Campaign, which seeks to end the projected $150 billion investment in new frontier petroleum projects. He has eloquently written, “It is simply immoral to carry on with an outdated product such as oil. Petroleum is poisonous for the Earth’s climate and has been the cause of much suffering. The quest for more must end now.”

Douglas estimates that if a tenth of the finances projected for petroleum development were put into the development of renewable energy sources, they would become most cost-competitive and so reduce the need for oil. This is already underway, albeit at a too slow pace, as the costs of fuel cells, wave and wind power continue to drop. Through encouraging renewable energy, human rights, voluntary simplicity and energy conservation we can more rapidly make the nightmare of petrotyranny and terror simply another unhappy memory.

*** The book Petrotyranny is published by Dundurn Press and Science for Peace. It can be purchased on line through Amazon or Chapters-Indigo and is available at most of these stores retail outlets, university libraries and stores of the Book City chain. For more information on the book, visit its Web site at


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