by Richard Platkin

North American cities pay dearly for U.S. military policy in the Middle East. According to the July 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs, the cost of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is between $30 to $60 billion dollars a year. This is no small gift to the major U.S. oil companies who feed their profits with Persian Gulf oil.

But as demonstrated a generation ago during the Vietnam war, this country does not have enough resources for guns and butter. Each billion for the military build-up in the Persian Gulf is a billion not spent on homeless programs, public education, transit, and a host of other municipal programs for which there have been and ought to be federal dollars.

The costs of protecting U.S. oil are greater when we consider the impact of oil on public health and the urban environment. According to John Berger, author of the recently published Charging Ahead, this vast military expenditure not only fortifies the investments of oil companies, it postpones the eventual conversion to clean energy sources. Berger argues that this conversion will come, inevitably, as oil runs out, and we can respond to this certainty in one of two ways. We can accelerate the conversion, with such obvious benefits as lower reduction of greenhouse gases, or we can resist it, with all of the attendant degradation of the environment and public health which comes with the use of fossil fuels.

If the oil glut continues and consumption grows, there will be continuing blight to urban life. Vehicles powered by internal combustion engines will continue for at least another 50 years. Since most of these vehicles are cars, 40 percent of the land in the typical North American city will be devoted to streets, parking lots, driveways, and garages, as it is now. This is bad news for the urban environment for at least two reasons. First, these land uses create heat island effects which increase ambient temperatures by about 5 degrees. Secondly, general air quality will suffer from vehicle exhaust, refineries, petroleum-based chemical industries, and coal-fired power plants.

Another Middle Eastern war, spurred by an intense U.S. bombing attack on Iraq, was narrowly averted this February. But the success of U.S. brinkmanship is no reason for jubilation. The U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf is unabated, and disputes over oil, the underlying cause for war in this region, are growing.

Iraq ranks number two in proven oil reserves and, according to the Wall Street Journal, some experts believe that Iraq, when fully explored, will have more proven oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. In a world with an unquenchable thirst for oil, there is no shortage of private oil companies intent on cashing in on this thirst. This is a perfect recipe for intense commercial competition, including wars, to explore, extract, refine, ship, and sell Middle Eastern oil to foreign customers.

Optimists argue that there is enough oil in this region to make everyone happy – including foreign companies, local companies, governments, and local residents. A nice theory, but divorced from reality because both local and foreign companies are in the business of making money, not just selling oil. The more oil available, the more profits, and the more competition for those profits. And the more competition, the greater the danger of war.

Some argue that all Americans benefit from the foreign business successes of U.S. companies in areas like the Persian Gulf. No doubt the major investors benefit. But what of the 60 percent of Americans who own no stock, and what of the bulk of stock owners whose trickle down dividend checks amount to a tiny fraction of their income and of their needs?

For us the conclusion is inescapable. North American cities and their residents could experience tremendous benefits from an end to the subsidies and protection of oil profits in the Middle East. Billions will be available to meet critical urban needs. This means new opportunities for equitable and efficient planning.

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