Posted tagged ‘oil’

Carl Safina on Deepwater Horizon

July 15, 2010

An informative talk on the scope of this tragedy so far, but most relevant to our purposes here is the following conclusion that Safina makes:

I think we have to understand where this leak really started from. It started from the destruction of the idea that the government is there because it’s our government, meant to protect the larger public interest.

If you look at the page for this talk on the TED website, you can read through lots of comments about the role of de/regulation in creating and prolonging this disaster.

Fighting Privatization in Bolivia

July 23, 2009

Latin American politicians like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have recently made a name for themselves resisting a popular idea: that developing the “developing world” means accepting a role for privatization – usually a role for powerful corporations from the developed world. Many international development programs (from the World Bank, IMF and WTO), make privatization of utilities, infrastructure and other essential services a prerequisite for debt relief. Globally, this provokes domestic crises when the poor rise up against unaffordable rates for things like water and power.

Bolivia has been especially active in this struggle of the poor against the rich.

In 2000, the so-called “Cochabamba Water Wars” flared up when a consortium of corporations (called Aguas del Tunari) tried to privatize the city of Cochabamba’s municipal water supply, and were met with mass protest. The World Bank threatened to cancel its $25 million loan unless the utility was privatized, the contract went through, water prices soared, and the public rose up in protest. In a country where minimum wage was less than US$70 per month, many dwellers were hit with monthly water bills of $20 or more. A four-month brawl between protesters and police ensued, with protest spreading from Cochabamba to other cities La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí. The government declared a state of siege, and eventually canceled the contract, provoking extensive legal action from Aguas del Tunari and the World Bank.

In 2005, the capital La Paz was gripped by more water wars. The capital’s water supply was slated to be privatized under a group called Aguas del Illumani (owned by France’s Suez Lyonnaise company). This time, faced with a general strike and a blockade of roads that isolated the city, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa canceled the contract. As British MP Alan Simpson put it,

Since privatisation in 1997, the company has pushed up water prices by 35% in regions where 60% of the population lives in poverty. Despite this, the World Bank gave the company a launch hand-out of $68 million and declared that it highlighted “the vital role of the private sector in providing the future infrastructure services in Bolivia”.

In 2006, Bolivia opened another round of resistance by nationalizing its oil and gas industry in order to keep multinational hands off of it (as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Brazil and Venezuela have also recently done – see New York Times story here). Neighbors Peru and Equador are taking a similar strategy.

What interests me in this recent history is that Bolivians are not only fighting for control of particular resources or infrastructures. While they take to the streets to protest private water or gas companies and their rising rates, they also protest something bigger – the growing global, hegemonic trend of American-style privatization of everything. They protest the power of multinational corporations and their buddy-buddy connections with organs of international governance like the World Bank. Finally, they protest the idea that “development” works best when overseen by powerful, private, for-profit multinational corporations. They show that what often counts as “development” is simply capitalist-imperialist exploitation that would make Lenin say “I told you so.”

Intersection of Nature and Technology, again, from Walter Benjamin to Virtual Water

May 20, 2009

Your previous post was so inspiring that I had to respond in a fuller form than the comments.

On the one hand, there are several recent trends that point in the direction Arthur is talking about – e.g. all the recent news about switching our medical records over to all-digital, “paperless” billing for telelphone, cable, bank and utilities customers, etc. There is a sense in which, at least informationally, we are moving more and more to an all-digital environment, where the digital version feels like “the original” and all physical, analogue manifestations like a printout feel like copies. It’s worthwhile, even if his ecological argument is worthless, to reflect on some of the historical trends he identifies.

On the other hand, your critique based on the very analog energy and natural resource costs required to operate the ever-expanding global network of digital (i.e. electronic) devices hits Arthur’s argument where it hurts. This really gets me interested as a historian of technology. I’m very inspired by the idea, once expressed by Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, that although “the mastery of nature is, so the imperialists teach, the purpose of all technology…technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (Reflections, p. 93).

Science and Technology: these two words describe the relationship between humans and our natural environment – what do we know about that environment? how do we use, manipulate and impact that environment? Every human production requires consumption. Producing mechanical or electrical power, for example, always requires the use of some preexisting natural material or force–sun, water, wind, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Technological systems like our electric power grid never function – cannot function – without appropriate inputs of human effort (work, use, maintenance) and inputs of natural forces or resources. Science (broadly, the production of knowledge about nature) works the same way. This formula (human-tech-nature) works equally well for describing the water mill grinding grain, Pasteur observing bacteria under the microscope, or a network of cellphones spreading over the globe like Starbucks (or propagating like rabbits, if you like).

You found this little nugget of Benjaminian wisdom lurking behind Arthur’s argument. It can be found hiding in almost any pat techno-determinist narrative like Arthur’s. And it’s going to be an important nugget to keep in mind as we try to make even stronger ties between our analysis of natural resources and technological resources.

When we think about technological and cultural resources, we need to seek the hidden natural resources behind them. So for example, John Allan of King’s College London, an expert on the water economy of the Middle East, coined the term “virtual water” (AKA embedded water, embodied water or hidden water) to mean the amount of water required to produce any given good or service. In this same vein, we could ask: how much virtual coal do we burn in each blog post? As you argued, this is what Arthur misses.

Energy and the Intersection of Natural and Technological Resources

May 19, 2009

Following up on the topic of peak oil that I brought up in the comments yesterday, I wanted to comment on what I think is a somewhat short-sighted Guardian blog post by Charles Arthur. The thrust of Arthur’s argument is that the rising price of oil combined with with the falling cost of internet connectivity will create a future where the analog world cedes more and more to the digital.

If you need a shorthand for thinking about the future, then, it’s this: analogue will be increasingly expensive; digital will be increasingly cheap. Getting in a car or on a train or a plane? Analogue. Expensive. Non-renewable. By contrast, downloading an album, watching a webcast concert, watching TV: digital. Endlessly replicable, virtually instantly transmitted, cheap.

What, in turn, does that mean for our society? Apart from fewer cars on the roads (though possibly with more people sharing rides in them), it means more time working at or near to home, if your work involves things that can be done digitally. For all those jobs that need to be near to physical things – that is, where you make things like cars or food or whatever – you’ll have to be based nearer the place you work.

Of course, this line of thinking begs the question of exactly how Arthur thinks this ever-expanding digital infrastructure will be powered? The same fossil fuels that are used to power cars and planes are needed not only to run the infrastructure that exists, but to create all the physical pieces of that comprise it, both in terms of the actual production process (running the machines that make the machines) and as raw materials (i.e., every piece of plasic involved). Presumably he did not read the 2008 Harper’s piece on Google’s energy consumption.

Of course, to the extent that solar energy technology becomes more prevalent, it seems difficult to imagine how that particular natural resource could be privatized, even though the requisite technologies could still be proprietary.