- Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History by Brian C. Black
Oil, Brian Black argues, is a “terribly irrational resource” (p. 67). Since humans first began to take a serious interest in the black goo in the late nineteenth century, it has always been a refractory player in the attempts of both governments and corporations to rationalize, systematize, and regularize its extraction and distribution. The complex fluid geology of oil deposits, its immense stored chemical energy, and the astonishing mutability of its long hydrocarbon molecule chains have made it a top troublemaker among global resources. Yet as Black notes in this useful synthetic history, few if any other natural resources have been so central to shaping modern global culture.
Of course, Black is hardly the first to point this out, and he makes effective use of standard works like Daniel Yergin’s masterful volume The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991). But Crude Reality stands out from this and many other oil books for Black’s skillful incorporation of environmental and cultural history into the more standard narratives focusing on the geopolitics of state and corporate development of global oil resources. Perhaps responding to the influence of recent thinking in science, environment, and technology studies inspired by Bruno Latour and others, Black also makes an important and highly original (albeit somewhat uneven) contribution by analyzing oil itself as a “critical actor, capable of shaping an entire way of life” (p. 1).
Black divides the book into four roughly chronological sections. In “Part I: Cultural Exchange, 1750–1890” he focuses on the difficult challenges faced by early oil pioneers like the Rockefellers, Nobels, and Rothschilds in trying to streamline and control oil extraction and processing. Some, like Rockefeller, effectively ceded the unpredictable business of finding and drilling the vast American oil deposits to others, focusing instead on the more easily rationalized process of refining the black stuff into useful products like kerosene. However, [End Page 699] for European nations without huge domestic reserves, efforts to rationalize the oil business quickly bred incestuous partnerships between governments and corporations as they attempted to dominate distant oil supplies. The result was “Big Oil,” quasi-governmental corporations that combined technical know-how with diplomatic—and when necessary, military—power. Big Oil was both a rationale and a means for expanding European colonialism in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and it “emerged as an entity larger than nations and with a mandate to acquire crude regardless of any social or environmental costs” (p. 71). Big Oil succeeded in creating a reliable supply of oil for Great Britain and other industrialized nations, Black notes, but it did so at the price of huge oil spills and contaminated water supplies in the nations where the oil was actually extracted and refined.
Indeed, “Part II: Going Mobile, 1890–1960,” suggests that Big Oil had succeeded all too well in increasing production. By the early twentieth century, abundant oil supplies paired with the shift from kerosene to electric illumination drove oil prices sharply down. Desperate to find new uses, oil producers saw their salvation in the internal combustion engine. In the early decades of the twentieth century, oil-powered automobiles competed with mass transit systems supplied by electricity generated primarily by coal or waterpower. The victory of gasoline and private cars was, Black argues, in part a result of the advantages conferred by cheap oil, thus firmly connecting the hugely popular culture of mass automobility to the maintenance of cheap global oil supplies. At the same time, the two world wars demonstrated that oil had become a military necessity. In World War I, a typical American division used 4,000 horsepower; by World War II, the energy use had increased to 187,000, much of it supplied by oil.
Black expands on the cultural and geopolitical consequences of cheap oil in “Part III: The Globalization of Petroleum Domination, 1960–Present.” Besides making private automobility affordable, cheap oil raised the standard of...