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What, ultimately, is at the root of the conflict in Iraq and the Gulf region?

March, 2003

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Dear Friend,

As I write this letter, conflict in Iraq seems close at hand, and people around the world are gripped with a palpable fear and uncertainty.

What, alternately, is at the root of this conflict? And how can your support of Worldwatch make a difference?

Although there are many roots of the latest Persian Gulf crisis, one thing is clear:

The overwhelming dependence of the Middle East on oil as a source of revenue—and our matching dependence on their oil—are unhealthy and dangerous in ways that even the most "successful " war can never resolve.

For more than 20 years, we at Worldwatch have warned of the dangers of the growing oil dependence, and urged the development of a more efficient and diversified energy system. Now, more than ever, those warnings have proven accurate and urgent. A shocking two-thirds of the world's remaining oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf region, and its share of the world oil market grows with each passing year.

burning oilfields in Kuwait during the first Gulf War
Oil fields burning in Kuwait during the first Gulf War created an environmental catastrophe. The overwhelming dependence of the Middle East on oil as a source of revenue—and our matching dependence on their oil—are unhealthy and dangerous in ways that even the most "successful" war can never resolve.

It may be an accident of geological history that the world's oil is so concentrated in one region of our vast globe. But it is no accident that this region has also turned out to be the least democratic, most politically unstable, least respectful of human rights, and most prone to terrorism.

The easy money derived from vast flows of oil concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, props up dictators and monarchies, and delays political reforms, creating a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism and unrest.


Over-dependence on natural resources isn't unique to the oil dilemma. Other resources, such as diamonds and gold are already at the center of many conflicts today. In a groundbreaking paper we published last year, Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner estimated that, repressive governments and other predatory groups like rebels and war lords have taken resources worth over $12 billion from their own countries in the last decade alone.

Of the roughly 50 wars and armed conflicts active as recently as 2001, about 25% had strong resource dimensions among the core causes, according to Renner. These conflicts have left millions of innocent civilians displaced from their homes, injured, or dead.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, more than 2 million people were killed after Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded in 1998. Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad sent troops to support the Congo government. But control of the vast resource wealth of the country was the primary motivation for the conflict, according to Renner.

Unlike during the Cold War when most conflict rose from political and ideological motives, the future seems set for global struggles over diminishing essential resources set against a growing world population. As the population increases from 6.1 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050 we may be entering an era of spreading wars for resources. And recent research finds that wars fought over resources often last longer and cause more human suffering than similar conflicts did during the cold war era.


By contrast, the situation in the Persian Gulf today is global in scale and far more complex. But the dependence of the United States and other industrial countries on Middle Eastern oil results from a clear failure of national will and of political leadership.

US oil production peaked 30 years ago, and has been declining ever since. Even though the US makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population, it now consumes more than 25 percent of the world's oil. More than half of that comes from abroad–over 300 million gallons a day–and the amount is growing quickly.

No wonder that people around the world are convinced that whatever the problems related to nuclear and chemical weapons, the main reason drawing the US to the Persian Gulf is oil.

But this dangerous oil addiction cannot be resolved by military means. As long as oil imports grow, the Middle East will remain prone to dangerous and uncontrollable political instability. And the problem will be compounded by the fact that world oil production is projected to peak within the next 15 years. Dependence on the region will accelerate to even riskier levels unless something dramatic is done.


wind turbine - renewable energy source

An important solution to prevention of future resource wars is a true commitment to conserving energy and developing a new energy system based on renewable energy sources like solar cells and wind turbines.

The first step is a true commitment to conserving energy and developing a new energy system based on renewable energy and hydrogen. In our recently published State of the World 2003, my colleague Janet Sawin describes how we can develop these new energy technologies quickly, based on proven policies that are already working in many parts of the world. From Germany to rural China, renewable energy, especially wind power and solar (photovoltaic) power, has come of age. After more than a decade of double-digit growth, renewable energy is a multibillion-dollar global business. We are also at a turning point where clean-energy fuel cells can replace internal combustion engines to power the world's automobiles.

The challenge is to mobilize governments, businesses, and civil society to make the right choices and construct economies that are healthy for both people and the planet.

We change our behavior, priorities, and policies in response to new information. For nearly thirty years, the Worldwatch Institute has played a critical role as the leading source of information about the interaction among key environmental, social, and economic trends. Since being founded in 1974 by Lester Brown, Worldwatch has been able to leverage its timely information and cutting edge ideas to provoke systemic change. Rarely is Worldwatch alone responsible for a major change in policy, but often ideas that begin at Worldwatch extend to the world's policy arenas, and begin a process of change.

Building an environmentally sustainable and socially just society is an enormous undertaking, one for which there is no historical precedent. Worldwatch is committed to this mission But we cannot achieve a sustainable and just society without support from caring, engaged individuals who are willing to step-up and address the key issues that confront our world.

A Fascinating Look Inside Resource Wars...

As a 'thank you" for your gift of $50 or more, we'd like to send you Worldwatch Paper 162:
The Anatomy of Resource Wars. The 91-page paper, by Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner, is an insightful analysis of the link between natuml resources and conflict around the globe. By attracting predatory groups seeking to control them or by financing wars initially caused by other factors, resources like diamonds, timber, copper–and oil–play a major role in most modem wars. The paper uses a number of specific cases to examine the anatomy of resource wars and efforts to break the link
between resources and conflict. The Anatomy of Resource Wars is attractively designed and will be a timely addition to your home library.

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