Mattin Biglari – Umwelt und Gerechtigkeit

Oil, Decolonisation and the ‘Great Acceleration’: A Translocal History of Oil Refining and Environmental Justice in the Western Indian Ocean

Mattin Biglari

The mid-twentieth century was a fundamental turning point for anthropogenic effects on the planet. In the decades following the Second World War there was a ‘Great Acceleration’ marked especially by the intensification of energy consumption, particularly oil in the Global North. This project, however, shifts attention to where much of this oil came from, focusing on sites of oil production. It examines the proliferation of oil refineries in the 1950s and 1960s across the Persian/Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, following their political, social and environmental effects on the micro-level.

As recent scholarship shows, oil animated rising resource nationalism across the Global South in this era of decolonisation as governments sought to secure sovereignty of natural resources. Yet the rising importance of oil was not confined to oil-producing states: after all, now a multitude of oil-based products became essential for modern life, including fuels, pesticides and plastics, the production of which required refineries for the conversion of crude oil. Hence, many newly independent states across the Global South, even those without oil resources, viewed oil refineries as engines of national development. At the same time, shaken by Iran’s nationalisation of oil in 1951, which expropriated the world’s largest oil refinery, multinational oil companies sought to meet emerging markets with minimal disruption and disaggregated refining to reduce bottlenecking. As such, the 1950s and 1960s saw the construction of oil refineries in both postcolonial and colonial states, especially across the Indian Ocean, including Aden (1954), Mumbai (1954), Mombasa (1960), Karachi (1960) and Singapore (1961), adding to existing refineries in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

Despite often being hidden from view or rendered a neutral domain of technology, this project reveals the politics inhering in oil refineries by opening the black box by which they were constructed, operated and maintained. It begins through a translocal, comparative history of three of these refineries – Abadan, Aden and Mumbai – to explore the relationship between oil and decolonisation on the ground, asking the following questions: How did multinational oil companies negotiate local entanglements when faced with growing postcolonial aspirations and anticolonial movements, especially learning the lessons of Iranian oil nationalisation? What was the relationship between corporate sovereignty and post-Fordism, especially through the lens of oil expertise, labour and infrastructure? What was the social and environmental impact of these refineries, and how did issues around pollution, toxicity and environmental justice intersect with categories of gender, race, class and caste? How do these histories connect the global climate crisis with colonialism, postcolonial development, and global capitalism?