Why I Work – Wind and War

June 17, 2011

by Rima Mulla, Communications Manager, Second Nature

(This post is part of a weekly series by the Second Nature team about why we do what we do.)

Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Early 1991. You could literally taste the petroleum in the air.

Not too far from there—less than 250 miles away—the oil fields of a just-liberated Kuwait were on fire. In a retaliative and vindictive move, Saddam Hussein had ordered his retreating troops to set the country’s biggest export ablaze.

I was 13 at the time and didn’t yet grasp the consequences of this event—on Kuwait’s economy, people’s health in the region, the air, land, and sea around me. All I knew was that when I breathed the air tasted bad, when it rained the rain was dirty, and that couldn’t be good.

Kuwait oil fields, 1991

The retreating Iraqi troops set land mines around the oil wells, making it harder to extinguish the fires. And so they burned for months, spewing plumes of black smoke into the air and burning off an estimated 5 million barrels of oil each day. A report by the EPA in April of that year posited that these fires “may represent one of the most extraordinary manmade environmental disasters in recorded history.” The retreating troops also opened valves and pipelines into the Persian Gulf, causing what is still the worst oil spill in history (yes, even worse than 2010′s Deepwater Horizon).

Images courtesy of USGS and NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

Satellite images of the Kuwait oil fires. August, 1990; February, 1991; November, 1991.

I was a kid born to an Aramco engineer and had thus far enjoyed the middle class privileges that came easy in 1970s and ’80s Saudi Arabia. But 1991′s blackened skies imprinted on me. They got me thinking about how wars are fought over fleeting natural resources. How with ill will and a few sticks of dynamite, those same resources can be turned against us to threaten our health, environment, and security.

Fast forward ten years.

I’m on my way to my brother’s wedding in northern California. Along the route from San Francisco to the quaint inland town, through hilly and sparse parts of the state, I pass a wind farm. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen, and it is beautiful. Two-dozen towers of modern art reach high into the sky, their blades spinning in unison.

That fall I wrote a paper in one of my grad school classes about how crucial it was for countries like Saudi Arabia to diversify their economies or be left behind while the rest of the world embraced renewable energy. (Never mind that my proposed solution was for Saudi Arabia to become the Hollywood of the Middle East, providing incentives for big-budget movies to be filmed there. Not all of my ideas are good ones.)

Another ten years have passed since I wrote that optimistic paper. In that time, another war with Iraq, at least in part over oil, has been fought. The rest of the world hasn’t embraced renewable energy with as much gusto as I predicted. But it was never going to be that simple. It’s through my work at Second Nature that I finally understand the breadth of change that’s needed.

And I work here because two moments, ten years and thousands of miles apart, inspire me to optimism.

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