My son grasps the pump's hose and closes his eyes. He likes to feel the surge of gasoline through the hose. "We're lucky that dinosaurs couldn't reach all of the leaves on trees," I tell him as I squeeze the handle, "or that hose might be empty." His eyes remain shut, and he seems not to have heard.
For most of us, that moment at the pump marks our most direct participation in the geological story of life on Earth. When gas prices exceed $2 per gallon, we care more about petroleum's connection to the White House than its connection to geology. A bevy of scholars and policy analysts have seized this important moment of high prices and oil-related war to write about petroleum. Three new titles focus on the evocative political implications of our national chemical dependence.
Matthew Yeoman's Oil: Anatomy of an Industry emphasizes the changing role of oil in American life. In this very readable account, Yeoman tells an incredibly condensed version of petroleum's story. He begins with his effort to live a day without petroleum, which, of course, leads to the discovery that petroleum impacts every portion of our life.
From this point, "Oil" is less the "anatomy of an industry" and more a collection of essays on contemporary oil use, including Bush's relationship to oil interests, oil's relationship to national security, overseas oil exploitation of human rights, and a possible hydrogen-powered future. One of his finest essays looks at efforts to create conservation measures, such as CAFE, which established fuel economy standards for new passenger cars.
Overall, Yeoman provides a superb introduction to these issues, but on each topic he leaves readers wanting more. For that, turn to the accounts of two experts in their fields: Paul Roberts's The End of Oil and Michael Klare's Blood and Oil. Although these books are less engagingly written than Yeoman's, each bites off a specific portion of the oil story, digests it fully, and then offers thoughtful recommendations.
Roberts displays the nuanced understanding of a longtime observer of American industry and economics. Most important, he understands the interplay between industry and American consumers. "The End of Oil" tells the story of oil consumption during an era defined by low prices, which Roberts contends is now ending.
Roberts deftly writes about the passions that fueled American consumption and the efforts of oil and automotive corporations to extend their dominance. On the whole, though, he blames neither consumer nor seller. In the final chapters, Roberts describes our present predicament but also what has to be done to arrive at our energy future beyond oil. Key to this effort is the concept of "energy cost accounting," which considers the health and environmental costs of a resource to assess its true value.
Klare, an expert on foreign policy and national security, provides an up-to-the-moment view of the world through oil. With a brief turn toward history (particularly regarding US-Saudi relations), "Blood and Oil" describes oil's primary role in foreign policy today. He winds through the interests of the major players, including Russia, the US, and China. Energy self-sufficiency was once a major strategic priority for China, Klare points out. But their own supplies of oil became insufficient in 1993, and China's strategic view of the world has never been the same.
Klare claims that the United States is also carrying out foreign policy based on the need for oil. "Ultimately," he writes, "the cost of oil will be measured in blood: the blood of American soldiers who die in combat, the blood of the many other casualties of oil-related violence, including the victims of terrorism." He describes new models of warfare that require a permanent presence to ensure the supply of petroleum.
Klare's understanding of global politics lends credibility to his recommendation that new policies emphasize autonomy of supply enforced through integrity, by which Klare means "a state of affairs in which we make decisions ... in accordance with fundamental American values and with a view to the nation's long-term interests."
To carry out this shift, he says that the US must:
• Separate energy policy from overseas security commitments.
• Reduce dependence on imported oil (which does not simply mean exploiting domestic supplies).
• Hasten the transition to a postpetroleum economy.
Each time we stand at the gas pump, we interact with organisms that lived millions of years before. They cannot be renewed. All these authors agree, of course, that we would be better off if our society were not so committed to petroleum. Klare makes the point simply: "Recognizing the obvious - that petroleum is a finite resource and that our successors are going to have to rely on other sources of energy - we have an obligation to lighten their burden by taking steps now to ease the way."
• Brian Black is the author of 'Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom.' He teaches history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University.