As a legislative intern at Friends Committee on National Legislation working on legislative policies that address energy and the environment, particularly U.S. oil dependency, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the interconnectedness of violent conflict, the environment, and human consumption. It has become clear to me that Friends commitment to peace, equality, and social justice encompasses dimensions of the world’s relationship with the natural environment. Irresponsible extraction and inequitable distribution of natural resources are sources of violent conflict within developing countries. Addressing these issues is key in promoting world peace and social justice and, therefore, an integral part in upholding Quaker faith and practice.
Natural Resources and Violent Conflict in Developing Countries
Rather than benefiting the social welfare of a developing country, natural resource wealth can actually precipitate a downward spiral of increasing poverty, social injustice, and violence. Lack of democratic political structures and weak government institutions can interfere with tracking large resource revenue flows from their state-owned resource industries. A lack of transparency allows corruption within governments to go unchecked. Often the wealth of a country ends up, and stays confined, within the hands of a few corrupt government officials, unscrupulous corporate leaders, or warlords. In addition, government officials may manage their nation’s financial resources poorly by borrowing gross sums from future resource revenues. Without proper investment of its resource revenues—whether borrowed or actual—the country’s economic development suffers.
The economic benefits of resource extraction are usually not realized by the lowest-income population, yet it is common for this group to be forced to shoulder the costs via expropriation of the land, environmental degradation, and destruction of their traditional life. Because developing countries often do not have strong environmental regulations, extensive degradation of ecosystems occurs. Contaminants that pollute the water can force many to be displaced and inflict devastating illnesses on the local population. According to Kenneth Kusterer et al in Achieving Broad-Based Sustainable Development: Governance, Environment, and Growth with Equity, lack of access to clean water alone contributes to water-borne diseases that kill 3,400,000 people annually. In addition, poor air quality in developing countries contributes to half a million deaths a year.
Environmental degradation, corruption, and mismanagement of a country’s natural resources lead to increased income disparity, deeper poverty among the populace, and a greater liklihood of social oppression. This is a recipe for violence. When resource revenues stay within the ruling class and reinforce their power, it is common for rebel forces to attempt to gain control of the resource, often through violent means. Therefore it is not surprising that the more dependent a developing country is on natural resources for its source of national capital, the greater the risk of violent conflict. According to Ian Bannon and Paul Collier in Natural Resources and Violent Conflict: Options and Actions, as a country’s primary good for export as a share of GDP increases from 10 to 25 percent, the risk for civil war increases from 11 percent to 30 percent. And according to Michael Renner in The Anatomy of Resource Wars, it is estimated that 5,000,000 people were killed in the 1990s in violence driven or exacerbated by natural resources.
The Role of the United States
The economic prosperity of developed countries demands commodities from natural resources, including a steady flow of oil. This demand can contribute to a violent and inhumane atmosphere in developing, resource-rich countries. Often developed countries purchase resources from—and allow multinational companies to operate in—countries with repressive regimes, corrupt governments, and human rights violations.
In order to achieve a less violent world, it is imperative that the U.S. (which consumes more than a fourth of the world’s extracted resources) take proactive steps to help reduce violent conflicts and unsustainable environmental practices due to natural resource exploitation in developing countries. There is a range of actions the U.S. could take that would move the world toward a more peaceful and humane existence, based on the fundamental values of equality, peace, and simplicity.
Promoting Equality through Assistance
Billions of people live in countries where there is inadequate funding to meet the basic needs of the population. Without minimal health and educational services, it is difficult for a country to achieve the lasting economic growth necessary to pull its population out of poverty. More aid needs to go to countries that are trapped in a downward spiral of poverty. In addition, assistance is needed to encourage revenue transparency and accountably, especially in resource-rich developing countries.
The United States spends about 0.1 percent of its Gross National Product on economic assistance to poor countries and a mere 0.02 percent of its GNP on assistance to the poorest countries. FCNL has calculated that a transfer of only 5 percent of the total military expenditures for 2004, redirected to development assistance, would result in an additional $25 billion—more than doubling U.S. foreign aid—which could then be used to help meet basic human needs and encourage sustainable development in poor countries. Such an investment would contribute far more to lasting peace, security, and equity than do unnecessary, provocative, and wasteful military expenditures.
International Norms on the Environment
It is vital for the U.S. to support international instruments that promote peaceful prevention of deadly conflict and the protection of the Earth’s resources through international cooperation and law. A promising example of this is the Law of the Sea Treaty. This agreement, sometimes described as a "constitution for the oceans," provides a comprehensive framework for peaceful oceanic relations and enjoys support from a broad spectrum: environmental groups, the shipping industry, the fishing industry, and the U.S. Navy, as well as organizations that support international law and conflict prevention. According to the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea website:
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides, for the first time, a universal legal framework for the rational management of marine resources and their conservation for future generations. Rarely has such radical change been achieved peacefully, by consensus of the world community. It has thus been hailed as the most important international achievement since the approval of the United Nations Charter in 1945.
Samuel and Miriam Levering, two Quakers from North Carolina, labored for more than a decade to help develop and advance negotiations for the Law of the Sea. From FCNL’s office they worked diligently with governments on the treaty’s language. FCNL lobbied steadily in support of the treaty. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994. However, the U.S. has yet to ratify it. The Senate appeared likely to consider ratification early this year, and Senator Dick Lugar (Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supports ratification and fulfilling this long overdue act to cooperate with the international community. But the majority has not moved to bring it to the floor.
Being Smart Consumers
Our consumption choices impact the world around us. As John Woolman advised in 1770, "May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions." By simplifying our lives and making smart choices as consumers, we can limit the seeds of war and strife that we sow through our possessions.
Changing oil consumption habits in the United States is particularly urgent and should be made a priority for a variety of reasons. Although resource conflicts are sometimes over renewable resources (for instance, the conflict over timber in Cambodia and Myenmar (Burma) during the 1990s), they are more frequently over finite resources such as oil, minerals, and precious metals. Of those, the riskiest resource is oil; the more a country depends on oil as its primary exporting commodity, the more at risk that country is of experiencing violent conflict.
In addition to helping perpetuate discord within oil-exporting developing countries, the U.S. oil habit is expensive. The U.S. has spent vast human and material resources securing oil. In the Middle East alone, where more than two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves are located, the U.S. annually spends tens of billions of dollars to protect its oil interests. The cost in lives and resources has grown tremendously since the onset of conflict in Iraq last year. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of coalition soldiers have paid with their lives to secure U.S. access to Iraqi oil. At least $200 billion has been redirected from addressing human needs to paying for this war.
The U.S. oil consumption habit is costly to the environment as well, contributing to environmental degradation and global climate change. Millions of tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere each year. A considerable amount of carbon emissions is due to oil production and consumption.
How can the U.S. shift its oil consumption habits? FCNL advocates for public policies that reduce U.S. energy consumption and encourage the development of renewable sources of energy and alternative modes of transportation. There are a number of policies that would make petroleum less crucial to the U.S. by reducing its dependence. To start, we can substantially reduce U.S. oil consumption by improving the country’s method of mobility. The transportation sector consumes two-thirds of the country’s oil usage. Passenger vehicles alone use 40 percent of the oil consumed in the United States. Policies should be implemented that encourage continued innovation and the use of fuel-efficient passenger vehicles. In addition, since private vehicles consume more than twice as much fuel as public transit per passenger mile, public transportation should be substantially expanded. Making public transportation easily assessable and available for everyone would reduce our country’s overall oil consumption.
There are also other ways to reduce U.S. oil dependency—through advanced technology and innovation, as well as further substitution of alternative fuels, such as biomass, for oil. Laws should be enacted that create incentives for greater efficiency and use of alternative means. Specific policy options that would reduce U.S. oil dependence were outlined in the June 2004 FCNL Washington Newsletter.
Being Good Stewards of the Earth
In summary, to become good stewards of the Earth, we need to assess the ways in which we live and let all of our relationships be guided by our testimonies for peace, equality, and simplicity. Within our individual lives, we should strive to pay attention to the ways we can live more simply and encourage our friends and family to do so as well. It is also important that our country, as a whole, makes more intelligent consumption choices. The United States can help prevent deadly conflict and social injustices around the world by assisting impoverished countries out of poverty, upholding international law, and implementing sound environmental policies that lessen U.S. addiction to oil.