Saturday, November 13, 2010

Material World: The Caspian Sea: oil and gas versus caviar (2010)

The Material World column from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The overwhelming focus of mainstream Western literature on the Caspian Sea and its environs is on their vast oil and gas resources – on controlling them, extracting them, and “getting them out” to the European and world markets. Close attention is always paid to the commercial and strategic competition between the Western powers – mainly the United States and the European Union – and their rivals for control over the Caspian region – Russia, China and Iran.

As for the people who actually live in the region, they get a look-in only insofar as they may assist or impede Western business in this worthy endeavour. Nonhuman species, of course, are ignored completely.

A unique ecosystem
And yet the inland sea that we call the Caspian is a unique ecosystem. It once abounded in wildlife, including many marine species found nowhere else (the Caspian seal, the Caspian gull, etc.). Already weakened by overfishing, untreated sewage, and other human damage, the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea – like those of the Gulf of Mexico, northern Alberta and southeastern Nigeria – is now being rapidly degraded by oil pollution.

Even though oil and gas development is still at a fairly early stage, the worst affected parts of the sea, such as the waters around Baku and Sumgait in Azerbaijan, are already devoid of life. The whole ecosystem is probably doomed. For one thing, the sea level is steadily rising – one effect of the region’s geological instability (as a landlocked water body, its level is independent of that of the world ocean). A rise of 2.5 meters since 1978 has inundated almost 800 rigs. These submerged rigs are a major and ever expanding source of oil seepage.

Recently I translated a series of papers about the Caspian issued by a Russian international relations institute. I was intrigued to discover that the Russian analysts, unlike their Western colleagues, dwell at length on the ecological costs and risks of Caspian oil and gas development.

The caviar factor
It is revealing to consider why this should be so. It does not reflect any general Russian concern with protecting the environment. Russian experts do not seem to worry overmuch about the ecological effects of oil and gas development in Siberia or the Arctic (see MW, September 2007 Socialist Standard). Some factor specific to the Caspian must be involved.

That factor is fish – but above all, sturgeon, and especially its roe, known as caviar. As Bystrova points out:
“Even comparatively recently, the Caspian was capable of an annual yield of 500-550,000 tonnes of fish, with the bulk of the catch consisting of valuable varieties (sturgeon, white salmon, etc.). In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union produced 2,500 tonnes of black caviar annually, which was about 90 percent of world output... The biological potential of the Northern Caspian is about $37 billion. This sum is comparable with the value of the enormous hydrocarbon deposits recently discovered in this part of the sea. But while Caspian oil and gas will in time be used up, biological resources, if rationally exploited, are renewable and therefore practically everlasting.”
The Russian oil company Lukoil operates in the North Caspian, so Russian hydrocarbon and fishing interests are in conflict here. This makes for a certain ambiguity in Russian policy. Nevertheless, Russia is much more inclined to favour constraints on Caspian hydrocarbon development than are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, which depend much more heavily on Caspian oil and gas. Iran aligns itself with Russia out of concern for its own fisheries (it has enormous amounts of oil and gas, but not in the Caspian).

Crossing the Caspian
The Russian literature especially emphasizes the real ecological dangers of transporting oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea, either by tanker or through underwater pipelines laid on the seabed. Russia itself relies on south-north land pipelines and has no need for trans-Caspian routes. However, Western businessmen and politicians seek to avoid routes into Europe through Russian or Iranian territory, so they fund projects that envision crossing the Caspian very appealing.

Western analysts never seem to mention the environmental problems associated with underwater pipelines. Are they deferring to the enthusiasm of their masters or are they just ignorant? In either case their silence is remarkable, because some of these problems cast doubt on the feasibility of using such pipelines at all. The Caspian seabed is steeply inclined in many places, consists of loose and crumbly material, and is prone to gas releases, eruptions of mud volcanoes, frequent seismic tremors and occasional earthquakes. Any of these events could easily set off a landslide that breaks and displaces a section of an underwater pipeline.

Again, Russian policy experts have no general objection to messing about with geologically unstable land masses. The Yamal Peninsula in northeastern Siberia is every bit as unstable as the Caspian, but that is never given as a reason to stop exploiting its huge deposits of natural gas.

Playing cards
As we see from this example, ecological concerns are not, after all, completely ignored in the game of capitalist politics. Like all other concerns, however, they are constantly reduced to cards in the hands of players in the ongoing competition among sectoral and national sections of the world capitalist class. Each card is played when and only when the player holding it decides that it is convenient and profitable for him to play it. And so it will go on until we gather our strength and intervene, confiscate the cards and close down the game.

Greasy Pole: Blunt instrument of justice? (2010)

The Greasy Pole column from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

It did not need George Orwell's 1984 to make us aware that a system of privilege propagates itself through verbal distortions so that war is indeed peace, freedom slavery, ignorance strength and a Ministry of Truth conveyor-belts lies while our security depends on being watched by Big Brother. Consider, for example, this thing called “justice”. This is what people are supposed to “get” from a court if they breach the arrangements which are made to protect the pointedly weighted structure by which the lesser mass of people monopolise life's essentials and prevent access to them by the greater mass, no matter how acute their needs. A few years ago, when it was considered necessary for the long-established but mal-functioning Home Office to be split up there emerged from some part of it a new Ministry of Justice, with a number of Ministers to administer its affairs. What kind of match is there between these exalted personages and the protective concept of justice and how devotedly, effectively, do they nurture it in their work in government?

Reigate's Donkey
Step forward Crispin Blunt, since 14 May this year Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice responsible for, among other matters, prisons and probation. Since 1997 MP for Reigate, notably verdant even among Surrey's leafy constituencies. Educated at Wellington public school and Sandhurst with the inevitable commission in the Army which made him so attractive to the Tories in Reigate after they had de-selected Sir George Gardiner when his Eurosceptic ravings became too strident for them. After Gardiner, Blunt was soothingly reassuring; he was, as the chairman of the constituency Conservative Party put it, “...happily married with two children”. It was almost as if Blunt could have held that seat for as long as he wanted, growing stout and bald and querulous on the back benches – had he not revealed a tendency to become famous for particularly embarrassing gaffes. To begin with there was, even before he had been voted onto the green benches, his dismissive assessment of the local electors he hoped would put him there when he reckoned that “You could put up a donkey as the Conservative in Reigate and it would win” – tested out when Gardiner walked a donkey called Crispin along the High Street there. And after the donkey had duly taken his seat in the Commons his style of claiming expenses was shown to be not of the high standards expected of an officer and a gentleman as, after being told he could not claim for a second home because he lived there with his children he bought a larger place, claiming £16,000 for stamp duty and fees then a total of £87,728 second home expenses which included £417 for the repair of a water wheel.

Parties Inside
Meanwhile there was the work of administering the administration of justice whatever that meant. Somewhere along the line Blunt had become converted to the ideas now being espoused by his boss as Minister of Justice and Lord High Chancellor Kenneth Clarke. The theme of this is the “rehabilitation revolution” which is in fact driven by the need to manage reductions in budgets before any concern for helping prisoners to better cope with life outside the prison walls. In his first speech on the issue, Blunt outraged the tabloids by stating an intention to scrap a ban, imposed under Labour in 2008 after rumours circulated about a wild “ horror-themed fancy dress” party in a prison, on any further “inappropriate events”. Blunt described the ban in unparliamentary terms as “daft” – meaning unhelpful to the kind of “reforming” regime which prisons exist for – in theory at any rate. But in the predictable hysteria about murderers and rapists having obscene fun “at the taxpayers' expense” Blunt's intention was swept away – almost taking him with it under an effectively public reprimand from Number Ten. As a blunder it was on a par with the donkeys of Reigate. And how many more, his friends and enemies asked, would there be?.

They did not have to wait long for an event which was more revealing – and thereby more damaging – than any blunder. Blunt's 20-year marriage must have been as comforting to the Reigate Tories as his love of cricket. Victoria Blunt is a daughter of a wealthy American family who abandoned her career as a banker to support him in his political ambitions. “She gave up everything for him” said one acquaintance “She is the perfect MP's wife and would attend every fete and garden party..” But this, as another put it, “...was all built on a lie” – which became clear in August when Blunt abruptly announced that he is gay and was leaving his family to “come to terms with my homosexuality”. In itself this was not particularly shattering but there was more to it for his stated opinions have not been noted for any relaxed attitude towards gays. He voted against giving them the right to adopt and against allowing lesbian couples equal access to IVF treatment. In 1998 he opposed a move to scrap the ban on openly gay men joining the armed forces, pronouncing that “Military ethos has been progressively undermined . Letting overt gays in is another stage in the process” and on another occasion he complained about “a much greater strand of homosexuality which depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth”. Such views, although without any real supporting evidence, must have convinced many constituency Conservatives that they had chosen the right man to replace the reviled Gardiner.

It may be different now among the lawns and trees as around Westminster sharply dressed civil servants suck through the froth on their cappuccinos while offering the very lowest odds on Blunt being shaken out in Cameron's first re-shuffle. Blunt's wife was said to be “...completely traumatised”. Well, naturally. But did Mrs. Blunt's lucrative time as a banker not teach her anything about the ruthless cynicism essential to finance and commerce? Did her long intimacy with politician Mr. Blunt leave her vulnerably uneducated about the same atrocious features of capitalist politics? Does she now wonder about the nature of this thing called justice and why an exposed practitioner in deceit should have been in a position to inflict it on us?