What can we do about the Arab revolutions?

It’s frustrating to feel like nothing you do matters.  In isolation, we have very little effect on the world.  It’s only in aggregate, by organizing with other people that large changes — social chain reactions — can happen.  Sometimes it’s done purposefully, as in the case of universal suffrage or the civil rights movement.  Sometimes we don’t even realize what we’ve been organized to do, as with our present efforts to terraform the Earth.  A few weeks ago I was completely absorbed by the uprising in Egypt.  I don’t watch live video much (and no TV), and I was glued to Al Jazeera, and temporarily subscribed to a dozen actively twittering people in Cairo.  Then my sister sent me a link to a live hummingbird cam, which was jarringly disconnected from what I’d been immersed in, which looked more like this:

Down wt Mobarak

We had an e-mail conversation that ended with this comment from her:

But that’s SO big. It’s huge, it’s too big for most of us I think. It’s TOO hard to watch things like that and sit here and feel helpless. How does one even hold one’s government accountable? How do you even communicate, hey, here’s an idea, help everyone have clean water: spend your — I mean our — $15 billion on clean water, vaccinations and mosquito netting okay, not weapons. It’s so vague.  There’s such a disconnect.  It’s too big.  It’s too anonymous.

Though, it isn’t as if we just gave them the money and said “Don’t spend it all in one place!”, and then they decided to buy tanks instead of good sanitation systems.  Actually, we told them to spend it all in one place… according to the congressional research service, roughly 90% of the aid we give to Egypt goes directly to the military, funding 80% of Egypt’s defense procurements, which comes from US arms dealers.  $1.3 billion for weapons (and our arms industry), and $100 million or so for the things most people would consider “aid”, directed at creating a better society.  And Mubarak’s regime has “staunchly opposed” any of that money going to support the creation of civil society institutions in Egypt (aka… democracy).  The protesters were shot with guns that we gave to Mubarak’s security forces — tens of billions of dollars in US taxpayer funded military aid over more than three decades.  And all indications are that, had the Egyptian military followed the orders of its commander in chief, the protesters would also have been bombed by our planes, and shelled by our tanks.  Why?  Even after Mubarak fell, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs told Congress that US military aid to Egypt was of “incalculable value“, and should only be revised very cautiously.  Why does it have value to us?  Why do we believe that arming Egypt is in our best interests?

Regardless of the why, Leslie is right that the disconnect is huge.  I can call my senator and my congressional rep and tell them not to give military aid to Egypt, but I have no reason to think it will make any difference.

Yeah, I know I live in a bubble.  But I like my bubble.  In my bubble my kids cheer when mama hummingbird comes to feed her babies and my 4 year old helps me plant seeds. And I do make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, even if they are white middle class Americans and their babies.  That’s something I can do everyday practically.  I don’t think watching horrifying videos or reading depressing articles is very proactive.  Sure you’re enlightened I guess, but what are you going to DO about it?

It’s far away, complex, and painful.  Why not ignore it if you can?  The most common popular response — remarkably similar to the official US government response — seems to be that this is their problem, and they need to work it out.  But it’s not so disconnected from us.  From US.  From our daily lives and habits.  We care about what happens in Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, Sudan, and most of all in the Kingdom of the House of Saud, because the Arabs (plus Iran) control more than half of the world’s proved petroleum reserves.  It’s unclear to me how much of the special relationship between the US and Israel exists because of the oil nearby, but regardless of the original reasoning, these interests are now mutually reinforcing.  Cause and effect become muddled in feedback loops.


Just reading depressing articles and watching horrifying videos doesn’t do anybody any good, and so long as we are completely addicted to oil, calling your representatives won’t do any good either.

The vast majority of our oil consumption goes into transportation, and the only transportation where fuel makes up a large proportion of the overall cost is personal mobility — cars and flying.  If we don’t want to end up beholden to the Arab despots, we need cities and transportation systems that don’t depend on it.  If we want to have the political freedom to advocate for democracy in the Arab world, we have to change our interests there.  Ironically, even oil-rich countries we’re not on good terms with benefit tremendously from our consumption.  Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and Libya are all happy to sell their oil to us.  Because oil is a fungible commodity, embargoes can’t be effective for long.  Would nominally uncooperative democracies in the Arab world cut off our access to their oil?  I don’t see why.  The OPEC nations are as addicted — if not more so — to oil profits as we are to the black stuff itself.

Instead, the danger lies in a potentially chaotic transition from the status quo to anything else.  By helping to keep things stagnant for so long, by arming the tyrants, we’ve only bottled up the chaos, and now it’s erupting across the region.  All at once.  A dozen countries.  Three hundred million oppressed people who have suddenly discovered that they are more powerful than we thought.

This is not so far from a worst case scenario — a maximally chaotic transition.  Oil is $100 a barrel — again — and eventually, the chaos will come to Saudi Arabia.  In 25 years when the Saudi population is 50 million instead of 25 million (because their women are kept illiterate) and they can no longer afford to use their natural gas to desalinate seawater for their people to drink.  Or during a messy royal succession dispute.  Or despite the intricate and overlapping security precautions, one day someone may well succeed in attacking Ras Tanura.  Or who knows, maybe it will be this Friday, after prayers.

We can either control our own transition away from oil as a fuel by taxing its use heavily (as Tom Friedman has suggested repeatedly) and purposefully adjusting our land use policies to make our streets safer and quieter, air cleaner, people healthier and more sociable — by optimizing for pedestrians and cyclists, and leaving only scraps for the death machines.  Or.  Or, we can just go along with the chaotic transition, be periodically impoverished when prices spike, and continue enriching these dictators and the democracies we can only hope will replace them, someday, despite our worst efforts.

Blissed Out

So what am I going to DO?  I’m going to live downtown, and ride my bike, and advocate for density, and the end of cars in the city, and big, fat, gasoline taxes for everyone.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

2 thoughts on “What can we do about the Arab revolutions?”

  1. Somehow I missed this post when you wrote it. This is the question that has been in my mind for a lot of years, but with much more urgency over the past 6-8 months. What should I DO? I got into planetary science because I thought I would be doing something! Contributing to an effort that would teach humans how to live better on Earth and eventually help us move out to other planets! I spent my whole adolescence reading Carl Sagan and the Millenial Project and didn’t even know that I was a starry-eyed optimist. I thought, I walk my organic food home from the grocery store in canvas bags and, hey, I’m going to probe the secrets of the universe, I’m all good. 🙂

    At any rate, I’ve finally been brought down to earth by grad school, Jared Diamond, Howard Zinn, Michael Pollen, Barbara Kingsolver, two babies, two cross-country moves, a lot of time in hospitals, three wars, a weird movie about peak oil, your blog and others I found through links. Plus lots of other things. And now I’m asking myself all the time, What should I DO? The answer is almost always, MORE THAN I AM DOING. But, from a pragmatic stand point, here are some answers for now:

    1) Clean the kitchen and wash the diapers. And for godsake, hang the diapers on the line instead of putting them in the drier.

    2) Get the maddock out and break up more sod so there will be a garden and fewer trips to the grocery store next year.

    3) Tell everyone who’s wringing their hands about the Middle East to read A People’s History of the United States and watch Why We Fight.

    4) Buy chicken eggs from the neighbor.

    5) Try to convince my stepmom to carpool to the farmers’ market.

    6) Joke with Dane about starting a “sheep loan” plan to reduce lawn mower use . . .

    Etc. Like I said, not enough.

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