The Black Curse

I’m had an Iranian colleague years ago who told me they referred to oil as the Black Curse. I’m don’t recall hearing this term before or since, and googling the term brings up all sorts of unrelated nonsense, from the mystical to the racially offensive. But there seems to be more than a little truth to this.

I grew up in south Louisiana which has produced vast amounts of oil and gas for decades, yet the area remains one of the poorest in the country. Even Texas has a similar feel. All of the oil and gas are in east and west Texas yet all the prosperous cities are in the center of the state, far from that presumed wealth.

I remember having a discussion in 1980 with a professor of Latin American studies about the vast oil discoveries in Mexico, offshore. I speculated that Mexico would soon be a very wealthy country. He scoffed at this idea. At the time, I thought he was surely wrong. How could all that wealth not help a poor country like Mexico? But he was completely correct. I suppose that is why he was a professor of Latin American Studies.

Even in the UK all of that North Sea oil didn’t turn Scotland into a prosperous region, though one suspects it did help make London what it is today. Norway seems to have survived it’s Black Curse so far, but perhaps they are the exception.

You can go all around the world and places with any sort of mineral wealth seem to have the same Black Curse: poverty and oppressive governments. On the other side, countries with no real natural resources at all seem to fare well. I’m thinking of places like Japan and Germany.

Perhaps Russia is the latest victim of the Black Curse. All of the oil and gas wealth does not seem to have pushed Russia economically past either western or eastern rivals. As a long time leader like Putin watches his country become famous for it’s corruption and failures I can only imagine what he thinks and feels. He has now alienated the West and appears to be unsuccessfully begging the East for support. No matter what the outcome in the Ukraine, and no matter what the political efforts, the long 20th century oil and gas party seems to be ending. There are just better and cheaper alternatives. The only real question is when the oil is gone, will the curse go, too?