Democracy Endangered

Posted on July 1, 2010 by


This article is a summary of a larger (11 page) essay on the topic of oil and democracy. If you would like to read the extended, more detailed version, I can email it to you on request.

Democracy first developed in Athens about 2,500 years ago, but the modern, representative democracy of today is independent of this and is actually quite young, only developing in the last couple of centuries. It is the buzz work of the modern age, and seems to be on a relentless march forward, soon to cover the earth as the favoured political system of our times. Despite almost half the world population living in a full or flawed democracy, the recent democratic explosion has ceased, and since the financial crisis, has begun to decline. [1] In the greater historical context, we should wonder, why has democracy once again arrived and flourished in the past couple of centuries, but had very little success in any earlier period? With an apparent relation to the global economy, I began to wonder what could have caused its modern arrival and success, leading me to the belief that fossil fuels have played a vital role in its development, as I will explain shortly. Yet, it is not hard to notice that the most oil-rich countries are almost all authoritarian regimes. To answer the question of how we can make the world safe for democracy, I thus investigated the links between oil and democracy, and the potential risk of a coming peak in oil supply (Peak Oil) as a threat to democracy. My own conclusion, in the simplest of terms, is that there is reason to worry.

Pinning down the reasons for democracy’s development is difficult and many scholars have proposed various theories. When studying these theories, it struck me that most in some way relate to the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. This event was ultimately responsible for the creation of a new working class, as peasants were removed from the land and flooded into the industrial cities to find work in the new factories. Although leading to immense poverty, through time, the revolution provided new opportunities for organisation and class mobilisation, and weakened the authority of the ruling elite, who gradually conceded power through extending the vote to a larger proportion of the population. Gradually, as production increased and the market and economy grew, more people were freed from agricultural labour and gained literacy and education within the towns and cities, helping to promote the development of democracy. Yet, the role of coal is vital to acknowledge. Britain was already experiencing wood shortages from deforestation well prior to the Industrial Revolution, leading to coal, an inferior choice of fuel, being the unavoidable substitute. [2] In short, the factories would have never developed without this supply of fossil fuels to power the machines. With coal essential to the Industrialisation of the world, and this industrialisation leading to the socio-economic changes widely attributed to the arrival of democracy, it can be concluded that democracy has fossil energy to thank for its modern birth.

Since the 20th century, oil has taken over as the most important source of energy, leading to continued development, growth and prosperity in line with a continued spread of democracy. Energy (in particular oil) is a vital part of our economic growth, and from recent experience, it seems there is a correlation between continuing growth (economic stability/prosperity) and democracy. However, oil is already undermining and preventing further spread of democracy in other ways. While the population continues to grow and become increasingly literate and educated, oil is hampering democracy through the distortion of global politics, the unfair financing of elections and political lobbying, and through a process called the ‘oil curse’, where dictators prop up their corrupt regimes with the help of oil rents. An example of the first issue is the close relationship between Suadi Arabia and the US. Why is the US so friendly to one of the least democratic countries in the world (who, by ‘coincidence’ also has the largest reserves of oil)? Yes, this is a mutually beneficial relationship and is certainly no coincidence. The Saudi royals use the oil revenues to provide a lavish welfare system (keeping the population appeased), along with significant spending on defence and internal security with the aid of the US, and the US feels secure in quenching its addiction to oil for the near future. The response to the September 11 attacks, where 14 of 19 hijackers were of Saudi nationality, was surely distorted by the power relations that oil has shaped. Countries who primarily export oil suffer from many other problems, from civil war (when poverty is the ‘stick’ and oil wealth the rewarding ‘carrot’), to mass unemployment (oil exports distort to foreign exchange making other more labour-intensive industries uncompetitive). Oil rents are also used to buy political allies, thus removing the pressure for elections. As for the free and fair elections required by democracy, after a Supreme Court ruling in the US allowed for unlimited campaign financing, the oil industry has spent huge amounts influencing public opinion away from clean energy and energy efficiency. The American Petroleum Institute alone spent $39 million in the lead up to the recent American mid-terms, surely challenging the notion of a free and fair election. [3] These are not donations! They are investments in politics where financial returns are expected.

So what then are democracy’s prospects for the future? Well, we can be sure that oil will be increasingly scarce and hard to secure – many, (or even most) experts believe we will reach Peak Oil during this decade. Aside from enhancing the undemocratic tendencies of oil described above, a whole new set of challenges will be faced. It is unlikely economic growth will continue, leading to widespread unemployment, civil disorder and rioting as food shortages develop. This is the political space where authoritarianism and xenophobia can easily emerge. The risk of wars for oil will increase, and there will be little room for pushing democracy onto the oil-supplying nations – rather it will be a bidding war for who will bow to meet their demands.

So if these are the risks, it follows that the best chance we have for protecting and securing democracy for the future is to wean ourselves off oil before it is forced upon us. Developing renewable energy supply, aside from all the environmental benefits, will have political payoffs in the future. Democracy is only a means for promoting freedom and wellbeing, but if it fails to protect us from long term threats such as Peak Oil and climate change, then perhaps it will be a political experiment deemed inferior and once again banished to history. Democracy’s weakness lies in its short term focus. A government will only act if the voting public demands it, and mitigation against Peak Oil will take a decade or more, more than the normal political term in office. Governments will not commit political suicide by beginning this process until they have the support of the public. Thus, the best we can do is to warn people of the risks of Peak Oil, and collectively let the political leadership know that we support the changes needed. Democracy is not about the more-or-less meaningless vote every few years – it is about the freedom to lobby for action when it is required for our own future wellbeing.


[1] Democracy Index 2010, from the Economist Intelligence Unit, p. 1;

[2] Ponting, Clive, 2007: A New Green History of the World, Revised Vintage Edition, Vintage Publishing, London, p.275-289

[3] Center for American Progress Action Fund,