Human history, as taught by history books, is a story of great wars and great leaders, exploration and adventure, ideas and inventions. But underneath it all, the world has largely been shaped by one thing: energy resources. The discovery of fire gave our ancestors warmth and allowed them to get more energy from their food. Further harnessing the energy of nature through agriculture led to the dawn of civilization as we know it. The use of coal for steam engines brought about the industrial revolution. Even today, our exploitation of fossil fuels continues to shape the world around us.
In early 2016, the world was exposed to the struggle of indigenous people in the United States against the construction of an oil pipeline through their sacred lands. The clash between American government forces and Native Americans at Standing Rock is just another chapter in a long history of genocide in this country for the sake of resource exploitation. As the new nation of America expanded west across the continent, Native Americans faced mass deportations and executions, all so the new government could envelop the continent’s resources into its own. And unfortunately, the US’s exploitation of resources is not limited to the continent it occupies.
In November 2016, Russian state officials employed hackers and propagandists to influence the US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Many people speculated that Trump’s business ties – and possibly massive debt – to Russian industries was a determining factor in this unprecedented alliance. Later, Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State further clarified Russia’s intentions. Previous US sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine had stopped a $500 billion dollar deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, to drill for oil in the Arctic Circle. With Tillerson in position to lift those sanctions, both ExxonMobil and the Russian government stand to make an unprecedented amount of money extracting the oil from an increasingly endangered region of the earth. And if destroying the environment isn’t enough to deter the exploitation of resources, don’t think destroying people’s lives will be any different.
On December 13, 2016, the Syrian government took control of the majority of the city of Aleppo, killing at least 82 civilians and getting one step closer to ending a 5-year civil war in that country, which has already taken the lives of at least 86,000 civilians. The war has been plagued by confusion and conflicts of interests, concerning some experts about the possibility of a third world war, as US-backed rebel forces clash with the Russia-backed Syrian government. The reason for such international involvement in an otherwise domestic dispute was unclear, unless you boiled it down to energy resources. It turns out Syria was smack dab in the middle of two competing Natural Gas pipeline propositions that stood to deliver the majority of that resource to all of Europe. One pipeline would go through Russia-aligned Iran, and the other through US- and EU-aligned Saudi Arabia. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad went in favor of the Russia-backed Iran pipeline, and immediately the US decided it was finally time to overthrow this brutal dictator.
The debate about climate change and energy resources still rages on in every corner of the world, and it mostly seems isolated from any debates about these other geopolitical issues. But make no mistake, this world, and our place in it, is continually being defined by how we find and use energy. We can continue to invest in an energy infrastructure that destroys lives, nations, and environments; or we can choose to safely harness the energy that exists all around us, with technologies that have been available for decades. Unfortunately, the time to make that choice is quickly running out.