The terrible, bloody toll of oil

For thousands of years, there was a commodity that people across the globe, from China to Rome to Texas, fought bloody conflicts to secure. A product that was used to pay solders and decided the outcomes of wars. No, I’m not talking about gold — I’m talking about salt.

For most of human civilization, salt was the only method of preserving meat. This made it essential to maintaining armies, economies, and — ultimately — empires, making it what is known today as a strategic commodity. Basically, a strategic commodity is a resource so important to a country’s well-being, that they would be willing to go to war to maintain control of their access. The invention of canning and refrigeration ended salt’s role as the strategic commodity, but another resource emerged to take its place. That resource, as you may have already guessed, is oil.

Because of this, disputes over oil drive and exacerbate conflicts worldwide. In Sudan, the civil war between the north and south was sparked by ethnic as well as religious tensions. But it was perpetuated by a desire to control valuable oilfields throughout the southern regions. The growth and spread of the ISIS insurgency throughout Syria and Iraq was largely funded by oil revenues, and much of the fighting now centers around who will hold those oil-rich fields and the vast purchasing power they provide. Government corruption in Nigeria, stemming from the embezzlement of oil wealth, is driving up the rate of insurgencies like Boko Haram. Bubbling conflict in the South China Sea between China and it’s neighbors is fueled by a desire for access to the estimated 26.8 billion tons of oil in the region.

What’s more, ever since President Jimmy Carter declared oil a “vital interest” of the United States in 1980, we’ve spent $8 trillion building military bases throughout the Middle East and defending the flow of oil from the region.

Nearly everywhere you look, if oil isn’t the root cause of a conflict, it is contributing to it in one way or another by providing a revenue stream to finance wars across the globe.

The unfortunate truth is that — despite the first popular internal combustion engine being designed to run on ethanol, gasoline, or kerosene — economies around the world are addicted to oil. It fuels the cars and buses that take people to work; the trucks, boats, and planes that deliver goods to market. We’ve been locked into an infrastructure where countries quite literally run on one resource and one resource only, and are willing to pay with blood to ensure they don’t run out.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If we opened up our transportation system to fuels other than oil — such as ethanol, methanol, natural gas, electricity, and hydrogen — we could reduce the value of oil and the need to fight for its control. Oil wouldn’t lose all its importance, but its utility as a fuel of war would be diminished. As countries developed the ability to build their economies around other sources as well, it would lose its place as a strategic commodity, and the world could take a giant step toward a more peaceful existence.

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