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The Black Gold Brigade


You might imagine that a dystopian report from the United Nations or one led by Princeton University would give the global capitalist machine a moment of pause. You’d be wrong. A disinterested media largely ignored the July report from the UN and a November report led by the illustrious college. Not to mention the latest dire climate summary from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The discouraging UN study examined the first decade of the 21st century from a meteorological perspective. It found some troubling trends. Just to name a few: a more rapid thawing of Arctic sea ice, accelerated melting of glaciers, more extreme floods and droughts, more tropical cyclones, and the hottest decade on record. Surely there’s a big story there? Evidently not. But even if there was, it would make little difference. The sad fact is that the leading culprit of our ecocide happens to be the fulcrum of the American empire—the American military.

Fueling the Machine

The U.S. military is the world’s largest buyer of oil, dropping about $20 billion a year on black gold and other energy types. Our military needs oil even more than our economy does. Even more than Exxon and BP and oil giants do. Our military consumes more gallons of gasoline a day than all but 35 nations on earth. Without oil, our ships can’t sail, our jets can’t fly, our helicopters can’t hover, and our tanks can’t roll. As of 2009, the Department of Defense emptied 360,000 barrels of oil a day. And that number skyrockets during a war. For every one of our occupations a vast range of fuel imperatives arise: high-octane jet fuel, auto diesel, marine diesel, electricity, natural gas, and so on.

The increasingly prevalent drone program lends a particular currency to this insight: drones literally sit in the air for hours on end, some up to 40 hours at a time, their low-level buzz audible on the ground and in the small villages that are being surveilled for targets. To do that, to hang stationary in the sky and monitor—like a giant mechanical predator—the livelihoods of mostly poor Muslim populations, enormous stores of diesel fuel are required. The Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) can store 600 pounds of jet fuel. The military has been testing in-air refueling, which would create floating gas stations capable of refueling swarms of drones that gathered around its octane-rich hub in unvarying, buzzing formation. As you might imagine, the per-gallon costs of this in-air replenishment are extravagant. The goal, of course, is to keep drones in the air longer, perhaps permanently. Keep in mind, we had 50 drones in 2001, and nearly 8,000 now. In keeping with humanity’s imitative character, seventy countries around the world now own drones.


Thankfully for the odd conservationist, the Air Force has been testing drones powered by more economical fuel cells. The Navy, too, wants to convert to biofuels, like the Nazis did when their supply chains were crippled during the Second World War. At least then, when aerial assassinations are carried out against mere suspects, we won’t be saddled with the companion guilt of having murdered at the environment’s expense.


Protecting the Stash

But the squandering of oil isn’t the military’s only ecologically indifferent activity. There’s also the oil protection racket. A Princeton-produced report from two years ago suggested that from 1976-2007, the U.S. military spent $7.3 trillion guarding oil resources in the Middle East with fleets of destroyers and aircraft carriers, not to note the inevitable chains of supply vessels. The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that from 1980-1990, America expended $366 billion safeguarding oil supplies in the Middle East. Note this year’s dispatch of warships to the Straight of Hormuz to guard petrol transport routes. In our pathological pursuit of oil, we burn oil to protect what’s left of the oil, while we readying the troops for an assault on another nation that has more oil. The only thing we recycle is the business model. Repeat after me: invasion, extraction, exhaustion.


Extract or Die

But it isn’t just oil. Oil is simply the energy byword of the modern age. It used to be coal and will soon be natural gas. Resource extraction has a ruby red history that surges in parallel with the rise of industrial capitalism. From the earliest days of the Manchester coal mines, industrial capitalism has depended on massive resource extraction: French rubber plantations in Southeast Asia that were desperately defended when faced with potential nationalization; destructive oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Orientale on the edges of the Amazon rain forest; the government-led ejection of indigenous Naxalite populations from the Indian interior so multinationals can mine the mineral-rich hill country; Nigerian natives battling in vain to stave off the corporate piracy of their hydrocarbon wealth; coltan mines in the Congo flinging aside local communities just to speed new smart phones to store shelves. Note the presence of conflict at each of these resource hubs.

And now that we know about Pentagon plans for a larger global footprint, what can be done to stem the tide of ecological destruction? Down to its last card, the American empire is doubling down on war. It’s the only remaining advantage we can claim over our rivals. China has a better economy, Brazil a better democracy, and India has cheaper labor. But we are superior warmongers. And we hope that force of arms can rejuvenate our terminal capitalist enterprise, keep the dollar in reserve, and the hydrocarbons under our thumb. Either it will, or we’ll die trying. Resources are the ulterior motive that actuate imperial violence. Not democracy. Not peace. Not self-defense. Not humanitarian empathies. Resources can be hawked for money and then money can be used to make money on money. (See the financialization of everything and the history of IMF loans for more on the latter.) So when it comes to fossil fuels, the character of our demise reveals itself—capitalist in origin, extractive in character, and violent in execution.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.


Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

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