Is the Petroleum Profit Party Really About to End? Two Oil Countries Are Making Their Bets — And an Extra about The Other Washington

I. Guyana: Oil, Time & Money

Gwynne Dyer — Sept. 18, 2023

Guyana is not a ‘hellhole country’ of the sort Donald Trump complained about when he said he wanted immigrants to come to the US from white places like Norway instead, but it did used to be poor, tropical and largely populated by people of colour.

Irfaan Aly, President of Guyana

The people and the climate are still the same, but in terms of wealth Guyana is starting to look more like Norway. Guyana (next to Venezuela, English-speaking, with less than a million people) is on track to overtake Norway as an offshore oil producer within a decade.

The oil only started flowing in 2019, but per capita GDP has already tripled since then and is likely to triple again in the next ten years. That should be making people like President Irfaan Ali very happy, and yet….

“Time is not on our side,” he said last week in Washington, just after a successful auction of eight more offshore blocks for oil and gas exploration off Guyana’s Atlantic coast. They have eleven billion barrels of confirmed reserves and there’s probably lots more to be found, but in ten years it will be late 2033. What will the world look like then?

In particular, what will the international oil market look like then? On the very safe assumption that the impact of climate change will get steadily worse over the next ten years, and the reasonably safe assumption that governments will respond with last-minute attempts to cut carbon dioxide emissions back a lot harder, what will happen to the demand for oil?

Bizarrely, almost nobody in the oil industry is talking about this out loud, but a) the insiders don’t want to damage the market, and b) they have already made their piles anyway. Whereas Guyana is arriving late at the party, and they may be about to take away the punchbowl.

World oil sales will already have stopped growing by 2033, with electric cars legally mandated almost everywhere by 2035. Certainly oil prices will be very shaky as the demand shrinks and the supply doesn’t. So what does the ‘swing producer’ (Saudi Arabia) do then?

A 2021 study led by Dr Jean-François Mercure of Exeter University predicted the rational Saudi response, given that the kingdom’s prosperity and probably also the regime’s survival depends critically on its oil income. What the authors foresaw is that the lowest-cost producers, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, will go for broke.

Nobody can compete with them on price (they can make a profit even when oil costs only $20 a barrel), so they will flood the world market with cheap oil. The Saudis haven’t done that in the past because they could make much more per barrel if the supply stayed tight, but that’s a long-term perspective and there is no long term for fossil fuels any more.

If it becomes clear that a lot of oil and gas assets will stay in the ground forever, then it is your patriotic duty to make sure that the stranded assets belong to other countries, not to yours. So drop your price to $20 a barrel, drive all the higher cost competitors out of the market, and sell as much oil as you can before demand collapses.

That should be quite a lot, because at $20 a barrel you will probably still be competitive with renewables. If not, drop your price further. You have nothing to lose.

The authors of the paper calculated that Saudi Arabia could earn $1.7 trillion before demand completely dries up if it goes the ‘fire sale’ route, compared to only $1.3 trillion if it cooperates with all the non-Arab members of the OPEC cartel and tries to hold oil and gas prices up. $400 billion is a big difference, so which way will they jump?

Who goes to the wall first in this scenario? High-cost producers working in tar sands, oil shales, deep water and Arctic areas, so Canada, the United States, Latin America (mostly Mexico and Brazil), and Russia. But also Guyana, whose oil is five km. below the seabed.

The long-term course of oil sales??

This is the sort of scenario that haunts the sharper people in the industry, but they are outnumbered by the complacent ones so there is no stampede for the exit yet. Guyana’s oil production will just be hitting its stride in the early 2030s, so Irfaan Ali is quite right to be worried, but that complacency gives him a safe operating space.

The task for him and his successors is to use the next ten or fifteen years of high oil income to transform the country in a sustainable way. Much easier said than done, especially because these calculations are almost impossible to explain to the public, but at least he seems to understand the nature of the task.


II. EXTRA:  A  Look Back at those who Looked Back at Booker T. (Washington; not the one with the MGs)

Before there was a black American President, black America had a President.

Booker T. Washington
Washington fended off black rivals and white supremacists with almost equal fervor.Photograph by Waldon Fawcett / Courtesy Library of Congress

Booker T. Washington was already a celebrity—a self-made man, and the spokesman for black America—when he arrived at the White House on October 16, 1901, for a dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt.

They had plenty to talk about: Washington was a great orator and conversationalist, and he had become one of the President’s most valued advisers. But, almost before the plates were cleared, the form of this meeting had overshadowed its content. Washington had earned his reputation as a racial moderate by assuring white people that he wouldn’t press for social equality, but this dinner looked an awful lot like a strike against segregation; the reported presence of the President’s glamorous seventeen-year-old daughter, Alice, intensified the scandal. Southern newspapers raised the alarm; the Memphis Scimitar announced, with impressive certainty, that the dinner was “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.”

Both men survived the evening, but it was not soon forgotten. In his third autobiography, “My Larger Education,” Washington tells of a railway trip he took through Florida sometime later. At a stop near Gainesville, a white farmer shook his hand, exclaiming, “You are the greatest man in this country!” Washington demurred and suggested that Roosevelt was the greatest American, but the farmer was having none of it. With “considerable emphasis,” he said, “I used to think that Roosevelt was a great man until he ate dinner with you. That settled him for me.”

Washington loved this story—he sent a newspaper account of it to Roosevelt, who is said to have “laughed uproariously”—perhaps because it reminded him that he lived, and thrived, in a world that didn’t quite make sense. He was born in slavery, in Virginia, in 1856, which meant that he was old enough to remember the morning his family was freed, nine years later. At sixteen, he enrolled in Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, one of the Negro schools that were springing up in the postwar South; his remarks at his graduation ceremony, three years later, were singled out for praise in the New York Times. In 1881, at the age of twenty-five, he became the first principal of a newly established Negro school in Tuskegee, Alabama, and, like many college presidents before and since, he discovered that the job required constant fund-raising.

He spent most of the rest of his life giving speeches, building up his own reputation (quickly) and the Tuskegee Institute’s endowment (slowly). Washington’s message—that economic progress was the true engine of uplift for black America, and that black political agitation was “the extremest folly”—was engineered to meet the demands of his time, not the demands of history. (It was also meant to persuade rich people to write checks; Washington’s critics never let him forget that his temple to self-help was built on handouts.) He spent his life in search of consensus, not controversy, and historians have been fighting over him ever since.

In 1972, Louis R. Harlan published the first half of his meticulous two-volume biography, “Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901.” It began with a sneer. “Booker T. Washington has been the schoolbook black hero for more than half a century,” Harlan wrote, and his book aimed to change that, although there was nothing polemical about it.

Harlan, a historian at the University of Maryland, brought an exacting skepticism to his task, subjecting myths and anecdotes to forensic examination. (Although Washington remembered taking sacks of corn to the mill as a boy, Harlan concluded that the task “probably actually” fell to his older brother John. And, after quoting a starstruck reporter who described him as “tall, bony, straight as a Sioux chief,” Harlan hastened to add that Washington was “not actually tall, bony, nor very straight.”) Harlan, who edited fourteen volumes of Washington’s papers, used private correspondence to complicate—and sometimes undermine—his subject’s public image.

He clearly admired the skill and strategy behind Washington’s rise: the way he got his white neighbors to view his booming black school as a source of regional pride; the way he flattered Northern liberals and soothed Southern segregationists with the same folksy speeches. But, in Harlan’s view, the great race man was also an “artful dodger,” and a not entirely honest broker, forever spying on his critics, punishing his enemies, rewarding his friends, and bribing the Negro press. He got so good at telling people (especially white people) what they wanted to hear that he often forgot what he wanted to say.

The fact that Booker T. Washington’s tactics were finely tuned to the temper of his times helps explain why they were so discordant with the times that followed. Washington’s reasonableness came to be viewed as his mortal sin—he was often portrayed as the enemy of black activism. But these days, when the “schoolbook black hero” is Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington is less threatening, and more likable, than he once was: a slave turned mogul whose life story is easier to admire now that his political philosophy has been eclipsed.

And, in the age of Obama, Washington seems more than ever like a precursor: a beloved barrier-smasher, sensitive to the rigorous demands of being America’s favorite black person. In short, Washington seems due for reappraisal, and in “Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington” the historian Robert J. Norrell aims to push him back up onto his pedestal—or, at any rate, to pick him up off the floor.

No one can deny that Washington had an extraordinary knack for cultivating white people. A few years after the end of the Civil War, he worked as a houseboy for a transplanted Vermonter named Viola Knapp Ruffner, who was reputedly a demanding mistress.

The thoroughness of his housework won her over, and she became one of his first boosters, although it’s not clear whether she gave him her blessing to quit her household and set out for Hampton. Washington never knew his father, who was almost certainly white, but he found a surrogate at Hampton: Samuel Armstrong, the school’s founder, who had commanded black troops as a Union officer in the Civil War. Washington adopted Armstrong’s credo—work hard, don’t complain—as his own, and when the Alabama state commissioners in charge of Tuskegee wrote Armstrong in search of someone to lead their new school, he replied with a terse but nonetheless extravagant letter recommending Washington as “a very competent capable mulatto, clear headed, modest, sensible, polite and a thorough teacher and superior man. The best man we ever had here.”

It turned out that this new school in Tuskegee was essentially a vacant lot with a two-thousand-dollar budget. (A local tinsmith had promised to swing the black vote to the Democrats in exchange for a new state-sponsored Negro institute.) So Washington went to work rounding up students, who had to double as construction workers. This was to be a hybrid school, teaching academic subjects (many of the graduates became teachers) alongside agriculture and industry; students not only built the campus but also, after a series of disastrous kiln experiments, learned to make their own bricks, with some left over to sell to the locals.

With an emphasis on discipline (another legacy of General Armstrong’s) and practical knowledge, Tuskegee was meant to be an oasis of stability in a shifting world. The prolonged death throes of slavery had been followed by the accelerated rise and fall of Reconstruction: black men, some formerly enslaved, were swept into political office and then swept out almost as fast, as if history had suddenly been speeded up and then thrown into reverse. In his speeches and on campus, Washington stressed the importance of tangible things that changed slowly or not at all: how to plant vegetables, how to make a mattress, how to use a toothbrush (he was obsessed with toothbrushes). He could sound less like a man desperate to change the world than like a man determined to outlast it. Although he was married three times, by all accounts happily, and widowed twice, his voluminous archive contains, in Harlan’s words, “not a single love letter, nor a cry of joy.” Yet most people who met him praised his warmth, which was sometimes indistinguishable from obsequiousness.

In “Up from Slavery,” his best and most popular book, he told a joke about a “coloured man in Alabama” who mysteriously (and conveniently) found his true calling on a sweltering day, and cried out, “O Lawd, de cotton am so grassy, de work am so hard, and the sun am so hot dat I b’lieve dis darky am called to preach!” He saw nothing wrong with summoning up an old stereotype—the shiftless “darky”—even while asking his people to leave it behind.

In the course of a few days in 1895, Washington was transformed from a respected educator into a star. He had been selected to give a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, which must have been a considerably more exciting event than the name suggests. The audience was mixed (although not, of course, integrated), and Washington deftly combined black pride with Southern pride.

“Cast down your bucket where you are,” he said, urging blacks to make the South their home, and urging Southern whites to view blacks as their greatest economic resource. He invoked the faithful slaves who were willing to die to protect their masters, and then, before the warm feeling had dissipated, he delivered a striking threat that might have ended a less nimble speaker’s career: “We shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.” Although blacks were losing the right to vote, he urged his black listeners to begin “at the bottom”—with farming, not politics.

But what reverberated most was a simile he had used before, one that linked the reality of segregation to the dream of black advancement. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” he said. He was rewarded with applause, hurrahs, and women’s handkerchiefs, and the speech soon passed into legend. Like any great orator, Washington made people cheer for themselves: white listeners could celebrate their own open-mindedness, and also black acquiescence to segregation; black listeners could celebrate the promise of “progress,” and also the not insignificant fact that throngs of white people were cheering a black man.

The speech gave Washington fame, and the success of Tuskegee—a tidy, bustling, peaceful black campus, in the heart of the former Confederacy—gave him credibility. He became a fixture at jubilees and conventions, and on at least one occasion, in 1899, he shared a dais with Theodore Roosevelt, who was elected Vice-President the next year, and wrote Washington to invite him to pay a visit. Harlan reports that Emmett Scott, Washington’s shrewd secretary, added a triumphant annotation when he passed on Roosevelt’s letter: “You have him sure!”

After the assassination of William McKinley, in 1901, Roosevelt became President, and he came to rely on Washington as a loyal and discreet guide to the treacherous racial politics of the South, thereby establishing Washington as one of the nation’s most influential gatekeepers: for office-seeking judges and tax collectors alike, his endorsement was the one that counted. (He fought an epic battle to get a black man named William D. Crum appointed Collector of the Port of Charleston.) Washington was useful to Roosevelt partly because he seemed to speak, gently and patiently, for black America—though, in fact, black America’s doubts were growing. A rabbi in Cambridge was “astounded” to learn, after praising Washington during a lecture in 1903, that many blacks in the audience considered him a reactionary, or a sellout.

One of the letters of congratulation that Washington received after the Atlanta speech came from a young professor named W. E. B. Du Bois, who commended him for “a word fitly spoken.” Du Bois was a much worse organizer than Washington, but a much better writer, and while Washington was building his political machine Du Bois was building a devastating critique of him. In fact, Du Bois’s critique, as presented in “The Souls of Black Folk,” is probably better known today than the argument it was meant to rebut.

In language both elegant and slippery (he would often extrapolate from Washington, and then pick apart his own extrapolation), Du Bois firmly rejected what he saw as a three-pronged program: “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.” He called Washington’s speech the “Atlanta Compromise,” and the name stuck; the word “compromise” has colored interpretation of Washington ever since.

Certainly, Washington’s method depended upon the good will of Southern white people, which he was always quick to postulate, even in the face of contrary evidence. And his critics, not least Du Bois, relished the opportunity to portray Washington as the Great Accommodator, forever doing the bidding of powerful white men.

Norrell himself has written in the past about “Washington’s compromise.” But in his new biography he pushes back against the phrase, calling it “pejorative.” In his view, Washington didn’t trade political rights for economic opportunity, because there was nothing, really, to trade: “Washington was in effect conceding what was already lost—independent black political power—in order to reduce white hostility.” Norrell reframes the picture of Washington by emphasizing the extent and ferocity of that hostility; he shows how Washington and his critics conspired to make the Tuskegee project seem less controversial, and less brave, than it really was.

Washington’s home-state rival, William Hooper Councill, the president of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, could be even more conciliatory to whites; he once said, “God bless the white woman! I know she wants me hung when I assault or insult her and she is right!” After Washington’s dinner with Roosevelt, Councill dismissed it as an “accident”—which sounds like something Washington might have said if Councill had beat him to the White House.

In Norrell’s telling, Washington seems less like a grand racial bargainer and more like a man under siege, projecting strength and flexibility because he knew how precarious his empire was. “Washington never admitted the full extent of continuing white opposition to black education,” Norrell writes. From the start, Tuskegee alarmed whites who thought that educating Negroes was futile, or dangerous, and on at least one occasion the campus came close to disaster. A few months before the speech in Atlanta, a black lawyer fleeing a lynch mob arrived at Washington’s door; he helped the man to safety but later claimed that he had refused the man’s pleas for help—a lie that may well have saved the campus, and not a few lives. While Washington was whispering in President Roosevelt’s ear, he became the main topic of discussion during the successful congressional campaign of Tom Heflin, who was later elected to the Senate. Heflin, an ardent racist whose district included Tuskegee, accused Washington of working for his opponent.

“If Booker interferes in this thing there is a way of stopping him,” he said in a stump speech, adding, “We have a way of influencing Negroes down here.” Heflin evidently wasn’t bluffing: while he was a congressman, he shot a black man during an argument in a streetcar. In Mississippi, two black men walking home from one of Washington’s speeches were lynched near the railroad tracks; apparently the killers wanted Washington to see the bodies as he rolled out of town.

Washington often replied to critics like Du Bois by saying that they didn’t understand the realities of life in the South. (Du Bois was from Massachusetts, though he lived for a time in Atlanta.) Indeed, Du Bois’s attacks can sound as if they had been launched from a different universe. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” he wrote that Washington’s emphasis on self-help “has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators.”

But, in the context of post-Reconstruction Alabama, getting white folks to “stand aside” has to be seen as one of Washington’s greatest achievements. Nor was Washington inclined to trumpet his more “progressive” deeds. Washington helped finance legal challenges to black disenfranchisement in Alabama, but he knew the risks of exposure, so he instructed his associates to write in code: “C” meant a hundred, “D” meant dollars, and Washington was referred to as His Nibs, which was slang for a pompous ass, or as the Wizard. These two epithets were often used by Washington’s enemies, and he must have taken great pleasure in co-opting them.

While Washington earned white allies through charm and diplomacy, he sometimes shored up his black support through less delicate means. After he was reprimanded in the pages of a new magazine, The Voice of the Negro, in 1905, Washington targeted the editor, J. Max Barber. Washington put pressure on the publishers, who were also his publishers, and had his allies help spread the word that Barber was a coward, because he had—quite reasonably—fled Atlanta during a race riot. When Barber tried to get a teaching job at a trade school in Philadelphia, Washington blocked him by writing a scathing letter to one of its trustees. (Barber eventually found a less stressful existence, as a dentist.)

In 1906, when Washington’s detractors were gaining strength, he made secret arrangements to buy a controlling interest in Chicago’s leading Negro paper, the Conservator, which had been critical of him. (As it happens, Washington’s habit of buying or bribing dissenting newspapers was a large part of the argument against him.) Emmett Scott monitored the progress of this newly pro-Washington newspaper, partly because he wanted to make sure that the transformation wasn’t too fast or too drastic. In a letter, he explained, “Quiet effort is much more satisfactory in every way than that which carries around a ‘brass band’ to accomplish its results.”

The same advice might have helped Norrell, Washington’s self-appointed defender, whose book might be more persuasive if its aims were less obvious. He seems faintly embarrassed by Washington’s lifelong use of deception, and he spends a lot of time making excuses. After conceding that Washington had “little tolerance for criticism from blacks,” he offers a rationale: “He thought it was offered in bad faith and that it undermined the larger cause of black progress.” Maybe so. Or maybe he just knew which fights he could afford to pick.

Norrell concludes, rather too triumphantly, that creeping black disenfranchisement “did not defeat Booker Washington.” True enough, but the reverse is equally true, and somewhat more important. In the event, Washington fell victim to his own singular success. By courting Theodore Roosevelt and earning his trust, Washington became the unofficial President of Negro America, and so when the “mutual progress” he had promised didn’t arrive—when blacks were thrown off the voting rolls and purged from the Republican Party, when President Roosevelt dismissed a hundred and sixty-seven black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, after the murder of a white bartender—Washington was unofficially impeached.

By the time he died, in 1915, he was a popular but no longer dominant figure, and Du Bois and the N.A.A.C.P. were on the rise: the civil-rights century had begun. The fact that Washington was part of the last generation to have been born in slavery eventually came to seem like a mark of both obsolescence and authenticity. Du Bois, near the end of his life, rebuked a young student who sought to use Washington’s name as an insult. He said, “Don’t you forget that that man, unlike you, bears the mark of the lash on his back.”

Norrell calls Washington a “heroic failure,” a description that Washington himself would have abhorred: for him, as a pragmatist and a man of action, a “heroic failure” was a contradiction in terms. (This was precisely his argument against Du Bois’s principled but uncompromising approach.) In truth, it is easier to root for Harlan’s Washington, a cunning and ruthless strategist who fought white supremacists and black rivals with nearly equal fervor. Norrell’s advocacy leads him to emphasize how constricted the man’s choices were, how reactive his maneuvers. It’s a defense, but it’s a diminishment, too.

He also scants Washington’s radical legacy. Despite Washington’s carefully crafted image of moderation, there was indeed something radical about his belief in progress through the creation of black institutions, and his influence lived on in the unlikely form of Marcus Garvey, the back-to-Africa black nationalist, who sent a series of fan letters to Tuskegee near the end of Washington’s life.

In “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” (1967), the scholar Harold Cruse noted Washington’s influence on Garvey, and he observed that Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam “carried out Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of economic self-sufficiency and self-help more thoroughly than any other movement.” Even Harlan, who was never the anti-Washington partisan that Norrell makes him out to be, eventually warmed to his subject. In 1983, he published the second volume of his biography, which won a Pulitzer Prize. In the preface, Harlan adopted a more sympathetic tone. He wrote that Washington’s program “gave purpose and dignity to black working-class lives of toil and struggle,” and he marvelled at “the number and diversity of those he enlisted in his coalition.”

Washington may have been famous for accepting segregation, but there’s little evidence that he actually believed in it. Still, discerning Washington’s true beliefs is a treacherous business, because his distaste for idealism often resembled a distaste for ideals themselves. He was acutely conscious that his achievements ultimately came at the pleasure of whites, and he was aware of his own limits: in a private letter declining an invitation to the founding conference of the N.A.A.C.P., in 1909, he seemed to step outside himself, writing, “There is a work to be done which no one placed in my position can do.” His most implacable white critics sometimes saw him most clearly.

The writer Thomas Dixon—“The Birth of a Nation,” which was screened at the White House the year of Washington’s death, was based on his novel “The Clansman”—complained that Washington was teaching his students “to be masters of men, to be independent, to own and operate their own industries,” and “in every shape and form destroy the last vestige of dependence on the white man for anything.” And the white educator Paul Barringer said that Negro education, even the seemingly inoffensive kind that Washington promoted at Tuskegee, was a “mistake,” because “any education will be used by the negro politically, for politics once successful is now an instinctive form of warfare.”

There was, after all, a certain incoherence—perhaps a tactical incoherence—in Washington’s philosophy, which flowed from the assumption that education would make blacks less militant in pursuit of their rights. He claimed that the racial problems of America, and particularly of the South, would slowly work themselves out, but he also claimed that there would be hell to pay if anyone tried to hurry that process along. Although his optimism was discredited in his own lifetime, his pessimism still reverberates. The veiled threat at Atlanta—that blacks might turn out to be “a veritable body of death” in the American South—now seems a prophecy of the violence to come. Washington was right when he warned that black “agitation” would lead to misery and death and yet more hatred. He was wrong only to suppose that there was any alternative.


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