All that happens before we say, 'Fill 'er up'
Once again, we watch the gas prices climb, and have no choice but to accept the raison du jour: weather, relations with other nations, or bumps in the global stock markets.
But journalist Lisa Margonelli was not content with such explanations. She set out on a global trek to understand our petroleum conundrum and the markets that create it. The result is her book Oil on the Brain – a work that reads like a sort of artifact of our public discontent.
"Oil on the Brain" is a significant body of research and a superbly written narrative. Margonelli is a fun and engaging writer, and she offers many pleasures to any reader willing to accept her book as a series of disconnected articles on petroleum consumption in the early 21st century.
What "Oil on the Brain" fails to offer, however, is either a clear explanation as to how we arrived at this conundrum or a prescription for getting out. Readers looking for either of these will be disappointed.
And yet the details Margonelli offer leave no doubt that, in fact, she takes her topic most seriously. "And then there is the gasoline:" she writes, "1,143 gallons per household per year, purchased in two-and-a-half-minute dashes. We make 16 billion stops at gas stations yearly, taking final delivery on 140 billion gallons of gasoline that has traveled around the world.... And then we peel out, get on with our real lives...." Full of technical information and intriguing data, "Oil on the Brain" instructs its readers on many industry details but, ultimately, drops them unchanged right back where they began.
Once we accept the limits of this book, however, we find that the individual chapters in "Oil on the Brain" offer significant insight. There is much to be learned from the research conducted by Margonelli as she wrote on business and technology for publications including Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, Discover, and Jane.
In the first six chapters of the book, Margonelli's technical knowledge pulls back the curtain on the infrastructure of the petroleum business and its relationship to the American standard of living. Like an X-ray of daily life in the United States, Margonelli's writing explores the systems that make us go. In "Gas Station," "Distribution," and "NYMEX Oil Market," we learn how gasoline arrives at our pump and how the price is set. A human face is hung on each of these murky concepts.
In the final chapters of "Oil on the Brain," Margonelli shifts abruptly from the consumer sector to supply-side issues tied to specific nations, including Chad, Venezuela, Iran, and China – an important detour, although one that costs "Oil on the Brain" its narrative coherence.
As a series of snapshots from our petroleum conundrum, "Oil on the Brain" is an engaging ride through the details of our dependency. In the end, Margonelli urges that: "...we need to question whether the innovations of Oil City [Pa.] – the cars, the corporations, the antitrust laws, the network of roads, the murky relationship between government and industry – are still working to our advantage. Are they giving us the strategic flexibility we need?"
Of course, she has spent nearly 300 pages demonstrating that they do not. Although as a consumer I understand the situation much better because of "Oil On the Brain," reading it has brought me no closer to saying anything but "Fill 'er up!"
• Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University. He writes on energy history and is the author of 'Petrolia.'