Homophobia remains deeply ingrained in many parts of the world. Some of the worst offenders are petroleum-producing nations. The deluge of oil money leads to corruption, an embrace of fundamentalism, and stunts growth in culture, politics, science, and education. These combustible ingredients lead to human rights violations and create particularly hostile environments for women and LGBT people.
A series of new discoveries and technological innovations in energy production threaten to turn the old order upside down. Powerful countries long dependent on foreign oil, such as Japan and the United States, could potentially be energy independent within a decade or two.
The first innovation is known as “fracking.” This process allows for the extraction of previously inaccessible oil and natural gas from rocks, by shooting a mix of water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth. This technique has drastically increased homegrown energy in the United States, although environmentalists are rightfully concerned that fracking could pollute the water supply.
A second new technology offers the means to affordably transform Canada’s tar sands into usable energy. Many people are familiar with this process because of the intense debate over the Keystone XL pipeline – which would stretch from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in New York last week to help overcome objections to the pipeline from environmentalists and politicians.
A third, and most promising possibility, is the commercial development of methane hydrate. This substance is found in the ocean and occurs when water molecules trap “guest molecules” of natural gas in frigid ice cages. An article in The Atlantic by Charles C. Mann describes the energy as “ice you an set on fire” and claims that “by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined.”
This evolution may finally free industrial countries from the shackles of rogue oil nations. However, there is concern that drastic changes to the status quo might lead to instability for traditional petroleum exporters.
“OPEC nations cannot afford to see rising North American production drive down global oil prices either,” writes Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski. “Were that to happen, it would sow political unrest in places like Saudi Arabia that have been shamelessly buying off their populations to keep the Arab Spring at bay. The consequences of regime change in Saudi Arabia could be deeply unsettling for global security.
Mann concurs in The Atlantic: “If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
Would that really be such a bad outcome?
It is worth considering the impact such momentous reshuffling of the world order might have on human rights. Traditionally, developing nations that strike a gusher are corrupted by the enormous wealth. To add a veneer of piousness to their immorality, they often buy off the clergy, which gives religious figures a disproportionate amount of power – as long as they don’t directly challenge the state. This dynamic stifles creativity and leads to oppressive conservatism in places as diverse as Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The easy money can also distort economies and offer a false sense of security. This often leads to underinvesting in human capital – such as science, medicine, high tech, and education.
The collapse of traditional petrol societies has the potential to transform these countries for the better. Sooner or later, Saudis will conclude that prayer won’t pay their air conditioning bills in summer, and Russians will figure out that the Orthodox priests will not cover their heating bills in winter. For their nations to succeed, they will have to invest in their people and in the future. To succeed in the international marketplace, they will need to compete for the best and brightest – and this means treating women and LGBT people as actual human beings who have something to offer.
While some worry about instability in such places, in my view, nations where gay people are terrorized and women treated like pets are already unstable. They are also unviable if not propped up by petroleum. While new technology – as well as advances in cleaner alternative energy – can give America energy independence, perhaps it can also lead to the independence of sexual and religious minorities after the old oil regimes come crashing down.