Crude World

On the 150th anniversary of the discovery of petroleum in the US, "Crude World" prepares us for petroleum’s demise.

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Look who just turned 150 – without looking a day over 10,000!  August marked the anniversary of the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania – or, at least, of our recognition of its usefulness. Journalist Peter Maass uses the occasion to throw a massive bucket of water on the flames of human exuberance for crude.

In Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, Maass presents humanity with a snapshot of the implications of our oil addiction.
Examining oil collection and storage and transportation from locales in the furthest reaches of the globe, “Crude World” is authentic, persuasive, and damning.

“Across the world,” Maass writes, “oil is invoked as a machine of destiny. Oil will make you rich, oil will make you poor, oil will bring war, oil will deliver peace, oil will define our world as much as the glaciers did in the Ice Age.” “Crude World” depicts the inner workings of this petroleum machine to “reveal an order in the world’s disorder.” The power to create great opportunity is part of the myth of petroleum; Maass travels the globe in order to create lively vignettes of the opposite destiny.

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“One of the ironies of oil-rich countries is that most are not rich, that their oil brings trouble rather than prosperity,” he writes.

In one of its greatest services, “Crude World” brings the concept of peak oil back to the general discussion of crude. “Just as the runner cannot increase her pace beyond a certain point, and must slow down after reaching top speed, so does the output of an oil field reach its peak and then decline.” Using the work of oil-industry insider Matt Simmons to extend the research of petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, Maass explains the concept of peak oil simply before dropping on readers the reality of the situation: “The pinch of $147-a-barrel oil in 2008 was just a foretaste of what awaits us.”

Crunch time, writes Maass, “begins when producers are unable to increase their output.” And this moment could arrive today or next year. “The blow may come like a sledgehammer from the darkness. That’s why the debate over peak oil is not just about numbers. It is about the future.” That’s his proverbial bucket of water: Just in time for its 150th anniversary, Maass sets out to prepare us for petroleum’s demise.

Admittedly, anniversaries can be silly affairs. In the case of Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery of the first commercial petroleum well in Pennsylvania, we note the start of many narratives: primarily, the realization that the oily oddity that seeped to Earth’s surface in a few locations might be gotten in enough supply that it could be put to work. From lubricant to illuminant and finally to fuel for combustion engines, the true revolution of petroleum is what humans did with it long after 1859. With this in mind, Maass’s dour “Crude World” may be the proper, albeit immensely cynical, way to celebrate 150 years of oil.

Maass is the latest author to tap today’s insatiable appetite to learn more about petroleum. He follows – among others – Paul Roberts, Lisa Margonelli, and Antonia Juhasz. A writer for The New York Times and other newspapers, Maass’s chapters often resemble essays first created on assignment. However, Maass is careful to direct his vignettes toward a main point. In its nearly complete, awful bleakness, “Crude World” clarifies that petroleum corrupts. It infects individuals – such as the character of Daniel Plainfield in the feature film “There Will Be Blood” – as well as entire nations.

In Maass’s account, each nation touched by oil – once considered a blessing – is fouled politically, environmentally, or economically by its experience with black goo. With titles such as “Plunder,” “Rot,” “Contamination,” and “Alienation,” his chapters tell the all-too-common crude experiences of locales ranging from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia; from Ecuador to Odessa, Texas. Ultimately, Maass’s point moves to the global scale, by considering climatic implications of petroleum use that potentially could foul the future for all humans.

However bleak it might be for readers to confront, the narrative argument that brings these stories together is persuasive, intelligent, and passionate. Maass’s desire is not to offer solutions – arguing, primarily that “we already possess most of the answers we need” – but rather to broaden the case for why it is imperative that alternatives be found. There were times, over the course of our 150 years with petroleum, when this would have seemed blasphemous. It says a great deal that today Maass’s message is common knowledge.

Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University. He writes on energy history and is the author of “Petrolia.”

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