“Crude World” by Peter Maass

Maas_Crude_WorldISBN 978-0-141-04317-3. “Crude World – The Violent Twilight of Oil” by Peter Maass was published by Penguin Books in 2009. Maass is a globe-trotting journalist and parts of this book were compiled from writings he delivered for the likes of The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, The New Republic and Outside (all US publications). When Franny Armstrong started work on what became the movie “The Age of Stupid” it was originally a story about the Oil Industry with the working title “Crude”. If she ever wanted to return to that project (and she should) then she could not want for better source material (nor a better script writer) than “Crude World”. You want to know what hell looks like? Open this book.

This is a travelogue compiled over several years – roughly the period 2003 to 2009. Maass travels to some of the most desperate corners of the planet to uncover the human cost of [what the Mail on Sunday quoted me as saying] ‘the ugly death spiral of fossil fuels’. The chapter headings spare us the geography and are, instead, given brief titles to reflect themes such as “Scarcity”, “Plunder”, “Rot”, “Contamination”, “Fear”, “Greed”, “Desire”, “Alienation”, “Empire” and “Mirage”. If you had to brainstorm a few words up to a flipchart on the topic of the problems with mineral extraction… then these would be the top hitters.

“Scarcity” deals with peak oil and is a brief chapter based upon the author travelling around Saudi Arabia to investigate the claims that Matthew Simmons makes in “Twilight in the Desert“. Although you get all shades of opinion reflected here, Maass remains of the belief that oil is peaking and we should not have high confidence of higher supply nor lower prices. Maass does not devote a chapter to climate change but it is a topic he touches upon in passing. He is no denier and embraces this reality fully. For him the end of oil will be a good thing all round. No wondering given the evidence he trawls up for this book.

“Plunder” takes us to Equatorial Guinea which oil & gas wealth has turned into the very model of a model kleptocracy. The per capita oil revenues are phenomenal but every penny is stolen by the President and his cronies & family. The money trail leads right back to a bank in the USA that was perfectly happy to launder the billions for el presidente. In “Rot” Maass takes us for a journey up the Niger Delta and into the real heart of darkness.Nigeria has become a modern version of hell. Everyone has a gun. Everyone is trying to kill everyone else. No trust. No society. No government that is worth a damn. It is all about oil.

“The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of Nigeria’s oil wealth has gone to 1 percent of the population.”

As Maas points out, even if there was no corruption then the resource curse can strike in simple economic terms. It crowds out all other economic activity in the manner that gambling can destroy all other activities in towns that legalise it. When you sell your oil the local currency tends to appreciate. This makes it very hard to sell your manufactured goods so your industries all shut down. Oil extraction may be profitable but it isn’t labour intensive so it doesn’t create any jobs. So you have high unemployment. A well managed government can find ways to deal with this. But corrupt governments do not have the ability to resist stealing the money and wrecking their economy.

In “Contamination” Maass takes us to the rainforests of Ecuador. Here the problem is literally THAT – contamination. Beautiful tracts of rainforest destroyed by vast pools of liquid poisons that destroy lives and livelihoods. The foreign oil company blamed for the damage is Texaco. Since the Oil Business in Ecuador was nationalised the Ecuadorians have been trying to sue Texaco for the cost of the damage done to their nation. Maass moves us onto “Fear” which is a journey through the heart of the US oil business and the corruption used to secure the black stuff. Maass quotes Frank Ruddy, a US Lawyer working on oil corruption trials:

“These aren’t stupid people. Evil is not people with moustaches who look like they’re doing bad things. Evil is done by people in suits sitting in boardrooms making horrible decisions. They do it because it’s worth it.”

It’s worth it. Indeed. Too much of the crime goes unpunished in a world where the lower operators get convicted (if they are unlucky) yet El Presidente gets to have state banquets in his honour with the President of the United States of America. Nothing is fair in the oil business. Whoever is to blame and for whatever it is worth Maass reminds us that Big Business is not charity. They are there to screw you and the environment to the benefit of far-away shareholders and their pension schemes:

“Ford, who owned the majority of shares in the Ford Motor Company decided to suspend dividend payments so that more funds would be available for capital investment as well as fund price reductions. [Minority shareholders] …filed a lawsuit demanding the dividends. In testimony, Ford made a surprising argument – that his company’s goal was “to do as much good was we can, everywhere, for everyone concerned… and incidentally to make money.” The Michigan Supreme Court would have none of it, ruling that a corporation’s mission “is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of its shareholders.” Ford was ordered to pay.”

In “Desire” Maass find himself in the Oil Ministry buildings of Baghdad in the spring of 2003 – post-Saddam liberation. Everything else had been ransacked yet US Marines encircled the Oil Ministry with barbed wire and machine guns. “It’s all about oil.”

“When oil comes out of the ground it is filled with impurities that include dirt, water, salt, arsenic and mercury. This is crude in its raw, literal form. The refining process transforms this black swill into a clear fluid without which our civilization would collapse. Quite often a corollary process of political refining occurs to sanitize the truth of what’s done to keep oil in the hands of friendly governments. Just as cars cannot run on unrefined crude, political systems choke at the unfiltered mention of war for oil.”

Maass goes onto relate a tale about the first American Gulf War to free Kuwait. At this point the story intersected my own life. I was a University undergraduate who read stories of the rape of Kuwait. Our Student’s Union was pressing for a Motion to withdraw any support for such a liberation lest it lead to the dreaded draft. Of course this was all nonsense. This was not 1970 and this was no Vietnam. Still, points of principle were being made and I had made my mind up that Kuwait had to be liberated. What we learn was that the stories we were told of the Iraqi occupation were all fabricated.

Today we can be philosophical. Kicking Saddam out of Kuwait remained the right thing to do. But, as we learnt with the phantom WMD in Iraq, the reasons we go to war are largely a smokescreen. It is all about oil. Of course the public are so much wiser to this now. Look at how hard it was for NATO to intervene in Libya or how the British Government’s attempts to intervene in Syria were blocked by popular public unrest. If there is a New World Order it is one where the populations of the democracies will not accept being lied to anymore. At this juncture Maass makes an important point: he writes that:

“The question is not whether war is about oil but HOW it is about oil.”

Good question. As the author rightly points out there are no oil company executives out there pressing for war to liberate oil. War is a messy, expensive, affair. Oil industry execs would be far happier simply bribing a government for the mineral rights. The reasons why we go to war for oil are far more complicated.

“Governments that are bent on military adventures – contrary to most conspiracy theories – become curiously resistant to advice from commercial concerns, which often understand much more about the consequences.”

In the 1970s, in “Shah of Shahs”, Ryszard Kapuscinski described oil as a substance that

“…anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts…”

…in brief: it smears every lens. It happened in Suez in 1956. It happened in Iran in the 1970s. And it will keep happening. There is always another good reason to start a war – it is just that war is the final shove against the door ajar. The reasons remain complex. The results are the same. We end up with our hands on their oil.

So we return to Saudi in “Alienation” to learn more about how oil has blighted that desert kingdom. The political machinations of Wahhabism lead to vast quantities of oil money be sucked into the spread of fundamental Islam. We move swiftly onto “Empire” with an insight into Russia’s rise to petro-superpower since 1989. We learn about Putin and his battle with Oligarchs. Then it is quickly on to a whistle-stop tour of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Unlike so many other blighted petro-states Chavez has turned the state-petrochemical company into an organisation that runs the state’s economic programs to benefit the poor.

Maass remains somewhat cynical about Chavez and reminds us of how easy it is to be generous when the price of oil is rising. The reason there are so many poor in Venezuela is because it is a petro-state. However we still feel that credit is due to Chavez for at least making amends as best he can. Maybe there are better methods but we feel that Maass underestimates the constraints of the paradigm under-which Chavez has to work. Would any other man have done different, or less, given the same circumstances? Maass (unfairly in our point of view) is too quick to paint a picture of Chavez as a cartoon character. Maybe Maass is himself trapped in the straitjacket of his own North American upbringing?

Maass wraps up his work with a conclusion where he asks “How do we stop the human, terrestrial and climate damage of fossil fuels?”

“I tell friends and strangers about the importance of conservation. I stress the benefits of renewable energy. I note that coal plants are particularly deadly – and that we should build no more of them. Although I haven’t raised my own vegetables, I mention the importance of locally grown food and, in the developed world, meals that involve lesser amounts of meat. Of course I emphasise the importance of transparency in oil and gas deals.”

This list if truisms remains fundamentally right – but what else could he say? What else could any of us conclude? If you want to solve a global problem start locally. Maass goes onto talk up what he calls “social values” by which he means the cultivation of a culture whereby unprofessional behaviour is simply unacceptable. We must be transparent in all our dealings with petro-states. In the end he believes peak oil will take care of the rest

“The advent of peak oil is yet another incentive to cut our dependency, because in the years ahead the price will only rise – skyrocket, really – if we fail to arrest our desires for it. 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 ten years.”

Maass ends the book in philosophical mode sitting amongst thousands of wind turbines in the Gorgonio Pass in California. He reflects upon his time in war-torn Iraq and writes:

“I knew for sure that the windmills were far more revolutionary than all the toppled statues in the world.”

Amen to that.

“Crude World” is an exceptionally well written book. Maass has the turn of phrase of a poet. No doubt many of us would donate body organs to write the way he does. Most of us will enjoy this book – if we have the guts to wade through it. It is worth it. Afterall, how many other books will you read this year that are recommended (on the front cover) by Robert Redford?

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