Monday, September 28, 2009

crude world - the violent twilight of oil

NYTimes | Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, who is considered to be the father of OPEC and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy, irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix. With a few exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few, poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.
Such is the message of Peter Maass’s slender but powerfully written new book, “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.” Unquestionably, by fueling better and faster transportation and powering cities and factories, oil has been critical to modern economies. But oil has also made possible the most destructive wars in history, and it has left human society in a historical cul-de-sac. Despite much hue and cry today, Maass argues, we seem unable to move beyond an oil-based global economy, and we are going to hit a wall soon.

Maass, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, tends to endorse the predictions of industry skeptics like Matthew Simmons, who argues the earth is about to surpass “peak oil” supplies. Even with the recent fallback in prices, the petroleum that’s left to discover will be harder and more expensive to extract. Last year’s $147-a-barrel oil was just a “foretaste of what awaits us,” Maass writes.

Maass is less interested in crunching oil-supply numbers, however, than in exposing the cruelty and soullessness of human­kind’s lust for this “violence-­inducing intoxicant,” as he calls it. His book teaches us an old lesson anew: that the true wealth of nations is not discovered in the ground, but created by the ingenuity and sweat of citizens. It’s the same lesson the Spanish learned centuries ago when they discovered gold, the oil of their time, in the New World. They piled up bullion but squandered it on imperial fantasies and failed to build enduring prosperity, while destroying the civilizations from which they seized it.

Destruction, or at least a lack of progress, has been the fate of most of the nations unlucky enough to sit on top of large pools of “black gold” today. They have grown corrupted by it, their leaders relieved of the need to show accountability as long as they can buy off well-connected foreigners and pay for the security and protection they need from their own angry, disenfranchised citizens. In starkly titled chapters — “Fear,” “Greed,” “Empire,” “Alienation” and so on — Maass shows how each oil state has found its own way to failure. “Just as every un­happy family is unhappy in its own way, every dysfunctional oil country is dysfunctional in its own way,” he writes.

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