This week I listened to the hour and a half lecture “The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry, and What We Must Do to Stop It” by Antonia Juhasz, which she shared at the University of Chicago on November 20, 2008. I found this podcast because I’m subscribed to the outstanding University of Chicago’s “World Beyond the Headlines” podcast channel, which regularly features engaging lecturers like Juhasz. (RSS feed.) I would rank this podcast and the issues it addresses as among the most intriguing I’ve heard to date on the subjects of geopolitics, economics, our current economic recession, the dangers of unregulated energy markets, the corruption which high concentrations of economic and political power naturally invite, and the obligations of citizens in a free society to demand accountability and restraint from government organizations, corporations, and individuals engaged in political as well as economic activities.Antonia Juhasz has a website, www.tyrannyofoil.org, for her book which has the same title as the UChicago lecture I listened to this week. She is actively getting out her message on a variety of social media websites, and I’ll link to a few of the videos I found online by her on YouTube and Google Video below at the end of this post. The NPR report from October 2008, “Antonia Juhasz: ‘Tyranny of Oil’ Is A Grave Threat” provides a shorter (30 minute) summary of her key contentions:

Author and activist Antonia Juhasz argues that the oil industry’s grip on policy and government has never been stronger.

What’s more, Juhasz says, the business and politics of oil’s production pose such grave implications on so many fronts — the environment, human rights, the economy, worker safety, public health — that the current state of petroleum-industry affairs is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.

There are numerous events and issues which Juhasz highlights in this UChicago lecture which were new to me. I did not know about the change in U.S. law which was snuck into a 1000+ page omnibus funding bill that allowed Enron along with major banks to establish private, unregulated energy exchanges in the United States. I have had a growing idea about the role which oil futures trading has played in the current economic recession, but didn’t realize that oil futures started to be traded so recently, and that the oil corporations are generally opposed to this openness of trading because of the transparency it provides to many of these transactions. I didn’t realize that Cushing, Oklahoma, which is about 30 minutes from our house, is the main place in the world where “spot trades” for oil actually take place. I knew oil futures and other commodity futures traders don’t typically buy “actual” goods and products, but I didn’t know about Cushing’s leading role in oil exchanges. I have a podcast I need to publish with the owner of the community Internet cafe in Cushing, which I recorded on February 1, 2009. That isn’t directly related to these issues of oil economics, but it is a connection I have and I found interesting.

I have sensed for some time that the general tendency we’ve seen in U.S. politics for years, dating back to the Reagan era, to paint government and government regulators as “the bad guys” is an overly simplistic and harmful trend. We need some government regulation to protect ourselves from individuals and groups in society, including corporations. I found Juhasz’ references to the history of Standard Oil and the populist movement which resulted from its corrupt excesses intriguing. I’ve studied that history a bit in the past, but it is clearly relevant to our current political environment today when mass-mergers and mega-corporations are more common than ever. I’ve reflected previously on our need to place limits on the power of corporations. See my post from February 2008, “The Corporation documentary: A big eye opener,” for more on this.

I’m saddened to hear Juhasz relate how U.S. policy in Iraq seems bent on handing over all control over oil reserves and revenues to our oil corporations. The amount of excess cash the oil corporations have today, which Juhasz discusses in her lecture, is positively staggering. I don’t think I have even a small appreciation for the power and clout which multinational oil corporations have and wield today. Juhasz’s lecture sheds some new light on these topics for me, and I’m very interested in reading her book.

I agree with Juhasz’s point that a focus on “peak oil” can be more distracting rather than constructive. Peak oil will happen at some point, but we have no real idea when that will be. We likely have VASTLY greater reserves around the world than oil companies and countries currently count, but that is really not the most important point. The most important point is that we need to support political and economic changes which will move our country (and therefore other parts of the world as well, who can benefit from and utilize the technologies we develop and make available) to transition away from an oil-based economy, and replace that economy with one which is sustainable and environmentally/ecologically friendly. This is a HUGE undertaking, but one which I think we must take seriously and become involved in advancing.

One other historical issue Juhasz raised in her lecture was how the oil price spike in the early 1980s led not only to the international recession at that time, but also the IMF/World Bank debt cycle for many developing nations which are also “hard wired” for oil and had to increase their borrowing to continue purchasing needed oil supplies. The new military infrastructure which was created and deployed during the Bush administration will to primarily support and protect U.S. oil interests not only in Iraq but also in Africa and other nations will, as Juhasz be difficult to dismantle. We must, in my view, pursue will all available speed alternative energy sources which will replace in the short term our dependency not only on foreign oil, but on oil itself. This is a big reason I’m an advocate for the Pickens Plan. The Plan is not a total vision for where we need to go as a nation with energy policy, but it would move us in the right direction and we need independent actors like Boone Pickens who are willing (and have the financial wherewithal) to take on the oil industry in this fight.

Another author on global oil geopolitics who I’d commend to you is Steve LeVine, who wrote the book “The Oil and the Glory” and maintains an active blog about these issues. Steve’s focus is the transcaucus region and particularly Baku, but many of these players, names, histories, and current activities are the same as those Juhasz highlights in her book.

Here are some of the videos I found online from Juhasz which can provide greater insight into her thesis and contentions in her book, “The Tyranny of Oil.” These are critical issues for all of us to study and understand not only in school, but also in our daily lives as we attempt to fulfill our obligations and duties as informed citizens of a responsive, democratic republic.

The tyranny of Oil- 1/2 (YouTube – 5 min, 40 sec)

The tyranny of Oil- 2/2 (YouTube, 7 min)

Antonia Juhasz – The Tyranny of Oil (Google Video – 1 hour)

(Side technical note: I embedded the mp3 of the podcast lecture I heard using these instructions for Google flash video embeds of mp3s.)

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  • Anne V

    And yet, to my fury, there are now commercials on my local radio news station where the oil companies are broadcasting ads about how clean and economical domestic oil is. How we should open up all available US land for “exploration,” and how raising taxes on oil will be forcing the oil companies to transfer those taxes to the consumer…

    Oh, those penny-pinching oil companies. I feel so sorry for them.

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