Every aspect of people’s lives is now tied to a “seemingly endless supply of cheap and easily disposable petrochemicals,” says a new essay.
Global demand for petrochemicals continues to outpace increases in production capacity, despite substantial production expansion in China and the Gulf.
The article, written by Professor Adam Hanieh of the University of Exeter, describes how synthetic oil production led to post-war revolutions in productivity, labor-saving technologies and mass consumption.
Beginning in the 1950s, a range of naturally occurring substances – wood, glass, paper, natural rubber, natural fertilizers, soaps, cotton, wool and metals – were systematically replaced by plastics, man-made fibers, detergents and other petroleum-based chemicals.
The growth of plastics at this time was possible thanks to the growth of the chemical industry in Germany and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of World War II, the United States was the dominant global chemical power.
Professor Hanieh, writing in the New Left Review, said: “Understanding the history of petrochemicals can help us all understand the intertwined histories of oil and capitalism. “
Germany supplied about 90 percent of the world’s synthetic dyes until World War I. The conflict brought about significant changes in chemical production. The IGF company played a central role in the war effort, pioneering the development of poison gas weapons (using byproducts of the dye industry) and synthetic nitrates for the manufacture of explosives and d ‘fertilizer.
Across the Atlantic, America’s major chemical companies also profited from the war. The Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) in October 1917 and the creation of a new office called the Alien Property Custodian (APC) allowed the US state to seize German patents and German companies, with particular emphasis on chemical products. industry. By the end of the war, the APC held around $ 700 million in German assets seized in 30,000 trust accounts. Companies have benefited greatly from the transfer of German patents, applying new techniques to expand their production and range of basic chemicals.
By 1937, the IGF was essentially transformed into the industrial arm of the German army. Twenty-four IGF leaders were charged and tried in Nuremberg, and thirteen were ultimately convicted of war crimes, including slavery, mass murder and looting. Those who were ultimately sentenced to prison received extremely short sentences and early pardons and were quickly reinstated into the upper echelons of West German industry. IGF itself has been divided into its original constituent parts of Bayer, Hoechst and Basf.
In the United States, significant levels of government funding were spent on petrochemical research and the construction of refineries during the war, and basic petrochemical manufacturing volumes grew at an unprecedented rate.
There has been a steady decline in the relative power of long-standing Western petrochemical companies; in 2010, 32 of the world’s 50 largest chemical producers were headquartered in North America or Europe, a figure that had fallen to 28 by 2020.
China and the wider Asian region are now central areas of petrochemical production and consumption. Petrochemical consumption underpins China’s initial production of cheap household goods, furniture and clothing, spearheading the dominance of the country’s exports in rest of the world markets. Nearly 30% of the global increase in petrochemical capacity over the next decade is expected to come from China.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of six Arab states, now owns 6% of the world’s petrochemical capacity, a figure that has doubled since 2000. Led by Saudi Arabia, the GCC is now one of the largest producers of several basic petrochemicals.
Chinese company Sinopec and Saudi company Sabic now rank second and fourth among petrochemical companies in the world, respectively, up from fifth and seventh in 2007. Sinopec is directly involved in the ownership, exploration and production of crude oil and gas, while Sabic is 70 percent owned by Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer.
State involvement in the petrochemical sector has been a major driver of private capital accumulation in Asia and the Middle East.
Adam Hanieh, Petrochemical Empire. newleftreview.org/issues/ii130… petrochemical empire
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