Gassed to Death

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

For the last decade, highway fatalities in the United States remained relatively constant, at 42,000 deaths a year. Every year, in other words, we lose more people on American roads than we did in the three-year-long Korean War.

But in 2008, when oil prices spiked, Americans drove a lot less. And that saved lives. In 2008, around 37,000 people died in automobile accidents. That’s really quite extraordinary. When gas prices went up by a couple dollars per gallon, we saved more lives than perished in the September 11 attacks. We should call a gas tax the “preventive health surcharge,” and include it in a comprehensive universal healthcare plan.

Higher gas prices have other advantages, of course. If we drove less, we would reduce our carbon emissions. If the government imposed a tax that boosted the price of gas, it could raise needed revenue to address climate change.

And if we drove less and used less oil, we could fundamentally change our foreign policy.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Conn Hallinan points out, the map of global conflict corresponds rather closely to the map of known energy reserves. Iraq sits on a big puddle of oil. Afghanistan is a crucial crossroads for energy pipelines from the Caspian basin. The United States is jostling with Russia and China for control of these riches. “The U.S. has enormous military power. But as Iraq, and now Afghanistan, makes clear, the old days of cornering a market by engineering a coup or sending in the Marines are fast receding,” Hallinan writes in Blood and Oil in Central Asia. “The trick over the next several decades will be how to keep the competition for energy from sparking off brush fire wars or a catastrophic clash of the great powers.”

The competition for oil extends to Africa as well. The Pentagon set up its new African Command (AFRICOM) to coordinate military relationships with key allies, like Nigeria, which just happens to pump out what will in the near future become a quarter of all U.S. oil imports. Nigeria’s Joint Task Force (JTF) launched a recent offensive against a rebel group that has attacked oil installations in the Niger Delta.

The collateral damage to civilians has been enormous. “The United States and other members of the international community should send clear signals to the Nigerian government that they are paying attention to the developments in the Delta and that they expect the government of Nigeria and the Nigerian military to adhere to basic humanitarian principles, including the protection of civilians, unfettered humanitarian access, and freedom of movement for noncombatants,” writes FPIF contributor Andrew Blum in his Postcard from…the Niger Delta.

“Fighting in the Delta has reduced the country’s oil output by more than 20%,” writes FPIF contributor David Kampf in In Defense of Aid. “Through development and diplomacy, Washington should push for peace in the Niger Delta and prevent backsliding in anticorruption initiatives.”

I don’t own a car. But the last time I visited the pumps to fill up a rental, I was shocked to discover that I could watch Gas Station TV. The screen above the twirling numbers displayed a high-octane mix of ads, infotainment, and updates on sports and celebrities, all crimped and styled to fit into the couple minutes it took to fill the tank. As I stared at the screen, mesmerized and horrified, two separate scenarios, one top-down and the other bottom-up, came to mind.

In the first scenario, a group of environmentalist hackers replaces the usual fare on Gas Station TV with a two-minute video on the real costs of oil: the lives lost in foreign wars, the environmental catastrophes in Alaska and Niger Delta, the carbon footprints of SUVs and corporate jets. It would be like showing the documentary Super Size Me inside a McDonald’s.

In the second scenario, the Obama administration imposes a $2 a gallon gas tax and nationalizes Gas Station TV. On the screen, while we fill our tanks a gallon at a time with the precious fluid, the administration broadcasts public service announcements. The words “friends don’t let friends drive” would appear on the screen, accompanied by a graph correlating higher gas prices with a significant drop in highway fatalities.

Now wouldn’t that be a gas?

The Fog of Development

The passing of Robert McNamara, a key architect of the Vietnam War, prompted FPIF columnist Walden Bello to reflect on this consummate Cold War intellectual’s other dismal contribution: his tenure at the World Bank.

“As president of the Bank, the world’s premier channel for multilateral aid, McNamara did quadruple the institution’s lending portfolio to $12 billion,” Bello writes in Robert McNamara’s Second Vietnam. “The key beneficiaries, however, were authoritarian dictatorships. Indeed, the rise to hegemony of authoritarian regimes in the developing world cannot be separated from the massive funding that the World Bank under McNamara provided them. By the late 1970s, five of the top seven recipients of World Bank aid were military, presidential-military, or military-controlled regimes: Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, and the Philippines.”

These days, we don’t gain access to mineral or energy resources simply through military intervention or the assistance of the World Bank pushing governments to sell off their valuable assets. There are also free-trade agreements. “As El Salvador transitions from decades of conservative rule to the administration of leftist President Mauricio Funes, the country faces an international showdown triggered by a restrictive free-trade agreement between the United States and Central America,” writes FPIF contributor Michael Busch in El Salvador’s Gold Fight. “Canada’s Pacific Rim Mining Corporation is suing the government for its refusal to allow it to mine gold in El Salvador’s rural north.”

Finally, FPIF contributor Rostam Pourzal looks at the current standoff in Iran through an economic lens. The government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoys authentic support from the poor and working class because the represents their interests, while the Green Revolution has largely put forward the concerns of the middle class and economic elite.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Pourzal argues in Would MLK Back Iran’s Protestors?, would not stand on the side of the protestors in Iran. “Reformist leaders deserve credit for promoting equal opportunity for women,” he writes. “Mousavi has even distinguished himself by calling for cultural rights for Iran’s numerous ethnic minorities. But since they don’t target poverty and elite corruption and cost next to nothing, these sincere ‘civil society’ initiatives are poor substitutes for Iran’s welfare state. A true civil rights movement would demand expanded affirmative action for all marginalized Iranians.”

FPIF, July 23, 2009

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