By Ken Connor
I’m going green! Not because I’m a tree-hugger, nor because I have embraced some form of pantheistic environmentalism. Rather, it’s because I’m concerned about promoting freedom and protecting family.
Recently, I read Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Friedman is a passionate advocate for the development of renewable energy resources to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. His reasoning, however, may surprise you. It turns out, this New York Times columnist isn’t only concerned about the environmental impact of fossil fuels on planet earth; he is also concerned about the impact that oil revenues have on freedom abroad and security at home. Both are impacted by the amount of oil revenues that flow into what Friedman calls “petrolist states.”
Friedman defines petrolist states as “authoritarian states… that are highly dependent on oil production” and which, in most cases, “accumulated their oil wealth before they established sound and transparent institutions of governance.” Iran, Russia, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia are on the list. The governments in these states are able to exist and enforce their dictatorial rule through the money they get from selling their oil abroad. And it’s a lot of money. The income of OPEC members rose from $110 billion in 1998 to over $535 billion in 2007 for about the same amount of oil. Petro-dictators thrive when oil revenues are high. They wither when oil revenues are low.
One of the more interesting hypotheses in Friedman’s book is his argument that oil prices and freedom have an inverse relationship in petrolist states. Comparing state freedom rankings from Freedom House with the price of oil over the past few decades, Friedman points to a general trend: rising oil prices provide more money and power to the ruling class and, consequently, reduce freedom among the general populace. Notwithstanding President George W. Bush’s efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East, his efforts were thwarted because America (and her allies) continued to pay petro-dictators top dollar for their oil.
High oil prices allow governments of petro-dictators to eliminate large swaths of jobs in their economies. When the primary export of the country is oil, a diversity of jobs simply isn’t necessary. The ruling class receives more than enough money to sustain itself and it increases its influence among the populace through the distribution of oil revenues. As long as the money flows, there is no need to establish a flourishing free market or encourage entrepreneurialism. Not surprisingly, these countries lack a healthy middle class.
High oil prices have had a negative influence on more than the petrolist states. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, high oil prices enable authorities to fund radical Islamic sects that seek to advance their extreme form of Islam through violence. These extremists—enabled by oil money—produce the terrorist organizations that now threaten the West. Massive oil funding is producing massive conversions to radical Islam among Muslim youth. Ironically, America’s chronic dependence on oil is funding their outreach.
Shrinking the financial base of radical Islamists will reduce the likelihood that we will have to send troops to engage them on fighting fields in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. That sounds good to me. My son will soon be returning for a second tour in Iraq to continue to fight in a war started because of a petro-dictator. Many other soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan, fighting Islamic extremists who gained a cultural foothold through oil revenues. It may sound strange to say that the gasoline we consume on a daily basis is funding terrorism and increasing the cost of the war on terror, but it is true. These dictators have no other major export than the oil we consume. More oil revenues for these brigands means less freedom for their countrymen, and a greater threat to our freedom.
So what’s the solution? America must reduce its demand for foreign oil. Doing so will be a long process, but the current recession presents us with a golden opportunity. Gas prices dropped quickly last autumn when Americans felt the pinch of high gas prices and changed their traveling habits. When the price of oil drops markedly, the grip of petro-dictators is loosened. If we continue to keep our demand low and pursue renewable forms of energy, we can slowly but surely wean ourselves off our dependence on petrolist countries.
You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to see the merits of Friedman’s argument. If we really believe in freedom and peace, then we should give heed to Friedman’s observations. If he’s right, we can promote freedom, discourage terrorism, and, perhaps, even help mother earth in the process. Where’s the harm in that?
Undoubtably, some of my fellow conservatives will find fault with Friedman’s analysis simply because he’s not a conservative. Conservatives have long battled against the more extreme forms of environmentalism, so it is all too easy to experience a knee-jerk reaction when someone calls for reducing our dependence on foreign oil. But conservatives need to take seriously the problems presented by this dependency and work hard to come up with solutions. The solutions won’t be easy, so along with Kermit the Frog we may have to acknowledge, “It’s not easy being green.”