Maybe we’re the wrong species to conjecture about sanity, but between 3 and 4 am on Saturday, September 14, Yemeni Houthi forces—or Iran, or someone—did what may, under different circumstances, have been the sanest thing that any human beings resident on this warming Earth could do: They managed to shut down the largest crude-oil processing plant on the planet. Nineteen drone strikes did the job, 17 of them hitting targets at Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq stabilization facility and Khurais oil field with an accuracy that was, in the words of one energy expert, “exquisitely precise.” In a single, two-pronged operation, they cut oil production by 5.7 million barrels per day, nearly 7 percent of the current global output. Decades of climate negotiations have not been nearly so effective.
The politics surrounding the strike are tangled, deranged, and overwhelmingly tragic, which makes it more difficult than ever to see that, on a saner planet, or in a saner human civilization, the destruction of a couple of petroleum facilities would cause far less of a stir than the horrors that triggered the attack: the war that has killed nearly 100,000 people, and the Saudi-led blockade that has resulted in the starvation deaths of 85,000 Yemeni children. But this planet, at the moment, is ruled by oil, which means that sanity is in short supply. Pipelines and tankers are the veins of modern capitalism. Facilities like the ones at Khurais and Abqaiq, in which crude oil is pumped and cleaned, are its liver and its kidneys, if not its black and beating heart. Any attack on them amounts to an attack on the system itself, and hence risks a wide and catastrophic confrontation.
For more than half a century, control over oil—where it flows and where it doesn’t flow—has been the key to global hegemony. Even Donald Trump understands that much, though he gets confused at times about how it’s all supposed to work. So it was that on the Sunday after the attack, he tweeted that “we” were “locked and loaded,” but were “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to…under what terms we would proceed.”
However muddled the message, and the messenger, the threat was clear. By the following Monday, Trump had asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a response. The danger has only gotten clearer since, as hobgoblins in Washington and Riyadh make the case for retaliatory strikes against Iran, though the Houthis took credit for the attack. (A January UN report suggests they were perfectly capable of carrying it out.) On Wednesday, the Iranian foreign minister promised that US or Saudi military aggression would be met with “all-out war.” On Friday he confessed that he was “not confident that we can avoid a war,” adding, “but I’m confident that whoever starts one will not be the one who finishes it.”
And so we stand, once again, on a terrifying precipice. We’ve been here since the earliest days of summer, following the seizure and sabotage of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the downing of a US drone there in June. We were “cocked and loaded” that time, Trump tweeted, and only the president’s quicksilver moods dragged us back from full-on war: He ordered air strikes on Iran, remember, and called them off with 10 minutes to spare. Whatever his motivations, we are lucky that he blinked. It is difficult to imagine that a direct conflict between the United States and Iran would not also pull in the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis, plus Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Russia, and that it would expand the field of battle to the entire Middle East, if not beyond.
Still, the problem is not only that we are at the mercy of fools and madmen. That has always been the case. The problem is oil, the way it concentrates power, the way it structures nearly all political and economic life on the planet, the way the struggle for control over its sources and flows makes spiraling conflict almost certain. We know that our reliance on fossil fuels is altering the climate and endangering our species as well as much of the life on the planet. We don’t talk as much about its other consequences, about the hundreds of thousands who have already been killed during the last three decades’ wars for oil, or the many thousands and even millions more who would likely die in a global conflagration that feels more inevitable with every passing day.
It is easy to forget, and important to remember, that just 100 years ago, the planet did not run on oil. It ran on coal, though coal’s brief dominion, which lasted only about a century, was never nearly as absolute as oil’s is. No other substance in human history—not coal, not whale oil, not wood, salt, iron, or bronze—has so thoroughly determined the shape of human lives. Oil, and the gases produced in its production, light, heat, and cool our homes. The gases released when it is pumped let us fertilize the fields that produce the crops we eat. It powers our factories and nearly all our transportation—our cars, trains, airplanes, and the trucks and cargo ships that ferry the multitudinous consumer goods on which we have come to depend, many of which are, in one way or another, made out of oil. We do everything but eat it, except when we do that too.
The political theorist Timothy Mitchell argues that oil was able to ascend the throne because its production and transport are far less vulnerable to the demands of workers than other sources of energy. Coal miners and railway workers could strike, and often did, which gave them enormous political leverage. It takes far less labor to pump and process oil, which can be shipped by sea or by pipeline with far fewer hands involved. An energy system based on oil allowed the wealthy to curb and erode the growing power of the domestic working class. Oil, in other words, made it easier to exploit people, and insulated elites from accountability to the populations over which they ruled.
So it was that after the First World War—the first conflict fueled by petroleum—the victors scrambled for control of oil fields and transport hubs. The borders and fault-lines of the current Middle East are a product of that era. So is Saudi ARAMCO, which owns the facilities targeted in Khurais and Abqaiq. It was originally a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Oil of California (which survives today as Chevron), and later changed its name to the Arabian American Oil Company. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the next world war was won by oil as much as by any human army. Petroleum fueled the tanks, the planes, the battleships; oil-derived toluene made the bombs go bang. And oil’s champion, the United States, would dominate the postwar era: the Marshall Plan pushed Western Europe to transition to oil-based energy, which meant dollar-based energy. Domestic and foreign policies alike encouraged, in Mitchell’s words, the “rapid construction of lifestyles…organized around the consumption of extraordinary quantities of energy.”
Which gets us where we are today, teetering as always toward a global and catastrophic war, the shape of our lives dictated by unaccountable elites who continue to profit as species after species drops into extinction and the planet becomes daily more inhospitable to the myriad forms of life that currently inhabit it. None of this is inevitable. Human society has not been organized this way for long, and does not have to be. It cannot be, if it is to survive in any way worth fighting for.