For most people, a trip to the gas pump rarely conjures images of oil spills, poverty-stricken communities and corrupt governments. The routine is so habit-forming that it’s rare we stop to think about how the fuel got here to fill our SUVs and Hummers.
But the crude world of oil exists despite our obliviousness, a world that New York Times Magazine writer Peter Maass shoves out into the open in his newest book, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (Alfred A. Knopf, $27).
Make no mistake: For most governments, striking oil is no blessing. It’s a curse, argues Maass, who makes his case by examining oil’s permanent impact on the countries that produce oil and those who possess it.
“One of the ironies of oil-rich countries is that most are not rich, that their oil brings trouble rather than prosperity,” he writes.
He comes to this indisputable conclusion by researching the effects of oil in far-off places known for their oil riches such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Iraq, and those closer to home, such as Houston, Texas.
Take for example Nigeria, where oil extraction has left communities with little payment and significant environmental degradation, leading to the formation of militias and a national breakdown.
“Now the world’s eighth-largest exporter of oil, Nigeria earned more than $400 billion from oil in recent decades, yet nine out of 10 citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday,” according to Maass.
But the span of Maass’ research goes far beyond the obvious to other parts of the world that are oft forgotten by the rest of us.
One example is in the Orient, where Texaco swindled impoverished and mostly illiterate Indians for the right to search for oil there in exchange for a delivery of bread, cheese, spoons and plates. The cheese was later thrown out because it smelled funny.
Another example is in Ecuador, where oil pipelines aren’t placed underground, out of harm’s way. Instead, the pipes sit right next to the road. If a drunk driver swerves into one of these pipes, he will create an oil spill. In fact, that's a common occurrence.
And, by the way, the largest portion of Ecuador’s oil goes to California, which means that “one of the most environmentally conscious states in America depends on oil from a region that has suffered a catastrophe to provide it,” Maass writes.
But the plundering doesn’t stop at the border. In the U.S., oil companies regularly break the law on royalty payments, environmental protection and worker safety, says Maass.
This stream of revelations — coupled with the notion that we’re most likely running out of oil — may leave readers depressed (though much better informed).
Luckily, despite Maass’ tales of doom and gloom, he remains optimistic, calling for the end of our oil dependency by seeking out other sources of energy such as wind and solar.
This idea is nothing new, but Maass nonetheless makes a convincing argument in his last chapter by beseeching people to stop looking for a shiny new silver bullet and start taking advantage of existing technologies and policies.
“It’s impossible to blame a shortage of ideas. New technologies and Einstein-level genius are not required for new railways and wind farms,” he writes.
And for those who refuse to move forward, choosing instead to stick to their ways until the very end, Maass offers the following challenge:
“If you are concerned about spending too much money on gasoline, just sit back, do nothing and see where those prices are in five or 10 years.”
In a world where social change often comes down to the pocketbook, that threat will hopefully awaken those stuck in an oil stupor.