By Peter Maas
288 pages, Knopf, 2009
Oil permeates our world. From the gas in our cars to the plastic on our keyboards it dominates our behavior, whether we embrace it or not The concern about oil was once greenhouse gas emissions, but the BP disaster has highlighted how the simple act of extraction is fraught with danger. Crude World, by Peter Maas, looks at all that surrounds extraction, in chapters named after the basest of human instincts, such as Fear, Greed, Plunder, and Desire.
Take Equatorial Guinea, for example. Ruled by a man described as “the worst dictator in Africa,” the country receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year in oil revenues. Maas describes in vivid detail how those funds are spent, from a Boeing 737 with gold-plated bath taps to the suitcases stuffed with American dollars which were regularly transferred from the embassy in DC to the dictator’s bank.
Then there’s the Niger Delta, where the military is fed, clothed, and housed by the oil companies to wage a campaign against the rebels, who are fighting against pollution and corruption in the Delta. But the rebels themselves are financed by stolen oil, which can only be exported by bribing the military they’re fighting against.
Maas walks through various oil-producing countries, relaying firsthand accounts of meetings with officials and locals, and describing how oil clogs the water and chokes the air wherever money can buy a company out of its safety obligations. And this is not just a tale of Third World countries left impoverished and polluted by the First World’s insatiable thirst. Maas notes without irony how two of the last three US national security advisors were directors of Chevron immediately before appointment. He then gives his own on-the-ground account of Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion, concluding that, “the fighting may not stop until the wells run dry.”
In his closing chapter, Maas examines how Venezuela has used state-owned oil to finance admirable social reforms. The trouble is that once the revenues dip, the reforms become unaffordable and poverty beckons once more. The book concludes with an image of Maas standing among wind turbines in the Mojave Desert, and leaves readers with the following thought: “We cannot undo geology but we can make these minerals less valuable.” He gives no solution as to how this should be done, but the book is a brilliant and engaging exposition of why.
– Chris Milton