We hear about people dying in Africa because of civil wars, or because they didn’t have a few dollars for medicine or malaria nets. We regret that their corrupt governments cause these problems and make our aid ineffective. On the surface this is indeed the reason for their problems. But if we look more deeply at the effects of our need for oil and minerals, we arrive at a different conclusion. We find the existence of ‘rentier’ states such as the Republic of Congo, Chad, and Nigeria, where once-healthy and self-sustaining agricultural countries have effectively rented themselves out to a demanding western world by focusing on the sale of one valuable commodity that doesn’t offer any benefits to the masses.
Nigeria, for example. Its once-dominant agricultural industry has collapsed as the government’s emphasis has turned to oil. People who used to grow food for a living are ignored as their ‘production state’ becomes an ‘allocation state’ in which only a few local people prosper, and most of the profits go to foreign oil companies. Militants in the Niger Delta attack oil company rigs and threaten workers to steal the ‘black gold,’ and if we hear anything about it we label them ‘terrorists’ and wonder why anyone would oppose development in their own country.
But these are people who cannot find jobs when billions of dollars in oil revenue is being taken from their homeland. People who are living with pipelines on their farms and in front of their houses, where 24- hour gas flaring leaves toxic chemicals in the air and burns the forest that used to cool their villages. There is no electricity, no medicine, no way to learn a skill to make money. Angry young men with guns roam the areas where children used to attend school. Acid rain and oil spills have killed the fishing industry. Children drink polluted water, suffer from diarrhea, and die. The western world knows this is happening, but we have little incentive to stop it because we need the oil.
We hear about military factions fighting each other in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Chances are they’re fighting over cassiterite and coltan, mineral needed for our cell phones and computers. In the DRC little children work in 100-foot pits 70 hours a week, digging out stones and lifting sacks of dirt and breaking rocks in some of the most dangerous conditions anywhere in the world, all for a few pennies a day. They get lowered into water holes, they handle toxic chemicals with their bare hands. Other children work as soldiers. Tiny boys patrol the mines with oversized machine guns on their shoulders. Guns that may have come from the U.S., for we are the source of half the world’s small arms.
We hear in the news about our country’s benevolence, as we seek to spread our way of life around the world so that everyone can have the opportunity to live like us. An ‘ecological footprint’ measures the amount of land and water needed by a human to support his or her consumption and waste. The average person in the world has an ecological footprint of 5.5 acres. The 4 billion people living in Asia and Africa have an ecological footprint of about 3.3 acres. Each of 300 million people in the U.S. uses 25 acres. If everyone in the world consumed at the U.S. rate we would need five planet earths to sustain us.
We hear in the news about our country’s efforts to boost economies around the world with free trade agreements. A 2003 International Monetary Fund review found no evidence that globalization encouraged growth in developing countries. A World Bank study in December 2006 reported that 14 of the world’s 25 poorest countries experienced increases in poverty over the past ten years. According to the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 2005, the OECD countries that have most vigorously implemented our economic policies have experienced the greatest increases in inequality within their countries. The money doesn’t reach the people most in need. The New Economics Foundation reports that only 60 cents out of every $100.00 of world income goes to those in extreme poverty, much less than in the 1980s before the growth of free trade agreements.
We remain in Iraq for the ‘advancement of democracy’ while 100% of the Shias in Baghdad believe that the U.S. military presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing.” A World Public Opinion poll shows that almost 3/4 of the world disapproves of our dealings with Iraq. Thousands of Americans have died in a war started on illusions. We went to defend ourselves against weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, and because of imaginary ties to Al Qaeda. And now there’s a new surge, based on a sense of approaching victory, even when all the evidence, now and since Vietnam, works against it, and when most Americans and Congress want us to get out.
We are also in Iraq because we fear terrorist and communists and others who are out to get us. This is where we spend our money. President Bush approved a record U.S. defense budget for 2008 – an increase of 11% to $481 billion. This will be augmented by an additional $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestic programs will be increased by 1%.
How do some of our undemocratic ‘enemies’ spend their money? China’s military budget is increasing rapidly, but it’s still only a small percentage of ours. China spent 9% of its GDP on infrastructure in 2005, the U.S. spent 1/10 of 1%. China is considered a potential adversary, and a competitor for the world’s resources. They are spending billions of dollars building roads and power plants in Africa, and getting oil in return. China is the world’s leading coal producer, and will soon be polluting the earth as much as the United States. But China is also creating a city that will not pollute. Dongtan will be self-sufficient, powered by solar energy and fuel cells, and enriched by wetlands and newly planted forests. In the United States funding for alternative energy research is less than half of what it was in the late 1970s. For every $1 spent on alternative energy research in the United States, $200 is spent on the military.
Undemocratic Cuba runs the Latin American School of Medical Science, which has 20,000 students from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the United States , all of whom are given free tuition to become doctors. Cuba has a low-cost national health plan that puts a doctor and nurse in every neighborhood. In addition, Cuba sends doctors to countries in South America, to hurricane and earthquake sites, even as far as Pakistan.
Undemocratic Venezuela has developed local cooperatives, or collective worker groups, a democratic process whereby communities work together and regulate themselves on business decisions. Nearly 200,000 cooperatives have registered in Venezuela in this successful program.
Our country exports guns. We sell twice as many arms as any other nation, and nearly half of the arms deliveries to developing countries in 2005 came from the United States. In 2003, we sold weapons to 18 countries involved in active conflicts, and to 20 countries declared undemocratic or human rights abusers by the U.S. State Department’s own Human Rights Report.
We hear in the news that we’re a great country and the world’s leader, and that makes us feel patriotic. But what exactly is a patriot? Socrates angered people by challenging them in public and exposing their ignorance. But he felt that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that he was acting as a patriot by encouraging thoughtfulness over blind acceptance and celebration of government policies. Like Socrates, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King felt that a patriot aspires to the highest ideals for his country and for his children, and in fact would perform a disservice through an unexamined acceptance of anything less. The first step to improving our country is to examine our lives and to see what we’re doing to the world.
PAUL BUCHHEIT is a Professor, Harold Washington College in Chicago. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org