Oil, in today’s economy, is one of the most valuable commodities. Seeing the current rise and fall in prices and the over speculation that goes on behind the scene, it makes one wonder: Why do people care so much about oil, and how would things be if they did not? The answer to the first question is pretty straight forward. Entire industries have been built up around the extraction, refining and transportation of oil, which employ millions of people around the globe. Countries, organisations and people who have control over large oil reserves are known to have significant leverage in matters of national and international politics. Organic oils obtained from animals and plants have been in use, for millennia, for numerous purposes like cooking, food preservation, lubrication, cosmetics and even used in ancient Egypt for making papyrus!
However in the 20th century, the importance of oil suddenly skyrocketed with developments in technology which enabled humans to efficiently harness that chemical energy. One industry where oil is of utmost importance is transport. These so called gas-guzzling vehicles, be it trucks, cargo ships, personal vehicles or aeroplanes have practically no alternative which proves to be equally accessible and convenient world-over. Electric cars had been proposed way back in the 1830s but oil tycoons prevented any further research in the field by the might of their wealth and well established political lobbies. Electric vehicles still constitute barely a fraction of all the cars and electricity based aeroplanes and heavy machinery are still a long way off. The largest challenge to today’s electric vehicles is our primitive battery technology. Due to minimal research in the field, we still have not been able to create batteries as energy dense as petroleum based fuels, which remains a very crucial factor in the success of any energy technology. Had battery technology or some other non-fossil fuel based energy source caught on, history would have been very different.
It would have had enormous consequences on the lives of billions of people. As the demand for oil soared, so did the strategic importance of oil-rich regions and countries. Discovery of large reserves of petroleum in 1960s on the Arabian Peninsula was the sole reason for rapid development and “wealthification” of the region. The opulent Arabs with their outrageous supercars, sprawling malls, massive amusement parks and ostentatious skyscrapers would never have existed. The Middle East would just remain a rustic region with nomadic tribes perennially travelling across the mainland and small fishing settlements along the coast. Saudi Arabia would not have had the influence it has today in the United Nations or such strong backing from the United States nor would Dubai have the busiest airport, flooded with tourists from around the world. Qatar would not have had the money to pay for the president of FIFA *ahem* and for the stadiums for World Cup scheduled for winter 2022. Most importantly, the infamous no income-tax system of these countries could not have sustained itself.
As mentioned before, people with control over oil reserves wield great power. However, if this person happens to be a tyrannical dictator, it becomes a whole new scenario. The possession of oil insulates these leaders from domestic uprisings and risky foreign policy ventures in a phenomenon called petro-aggression. This has most famously been the case of General Muammar Qaddafi of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Had this not been the case, the Egyptians would not had to have revolted in 2011 and the US invasion of Iraq would probably have not been a reality.
Oil has had a role to play in the World Wars as well. The American oil embargo on the Japanese was what caused them to attack Pearl Harbour. This further caused the bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events, whose effects are bound to last for decades to come. The ongoing conflict about the South China sea involving Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam is primarily based on and around the oil reserves located within the sea which are estimated to hold around 125 billion barrels of oil. This has lead to unprecedented, aggressive territorial advances in form of construction of artificial islands on coral reefs and certain submerged landmasses to station fighter aircrafts and military personnel. This has disturbed the biologically diverse flora and fauna of the region, in a way that cannot be undone. The Sudan-South Sudan conflict, the Argentine Falklands crisis all have their share of “oil-troubles” and the list goes on. All these untoward events would have been averted if a viable alternative to oil had been developed.
Another extremely widespread use of petroleum is in the manufacture of plastics. Plastics at the time of their invention, were regarded as a miracle material. Cheap to produce, robust, sturdy, immune to corrosion and abrasion, plastics found application in industries and households alike. The world greatly benefited from the invention of plastics, but ironically has been caused a great deal of damage. Plastics are responsible for land toxicity, clogging of drains in cities, poisoning of animals and much more. Had a more ecologically friendly alternative been devised, plastics would not have been able to cause the damage that they continue to cause to this day.
So as we have seen thus far, petroleum has had a major role in defining the world’s history. It has molded not only the it’s trade and economy but also geo-politics and the lifestyle of millions of around the globe. Surely, Earth would not have been the same if petroleum would have been just another throwaway discovery that nobody bothered to care about.