I’m just finishing reading an excellent book by investigative journalist Peter Maass called Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. It’s about the world’s dependence on oil: the pollution, corruption, compromised ethics, and tragedy of poverty in countries rich with the stuff. “Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, every dysfunctional oil country is dysfunctional in its own way,” he writes, and his book is indeed a catalog of dysfunction and unhappiness.
Maass travels to Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia, and Iraq. He even gets kicked out of Equatorial Guinea. The only place he did not visit was Chad, where he could have documented the monumental failure of the conditions the World Bank set on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline (and the ensuing conflict there). He does an admirable analysis of the pollution and legal struggle in Ecuador, a case we have worked on here at Oxfam, and even made it to the remote community of Sarayaku, another potential battleground in the Amazon.
I think that one of the crucial challenges in producing a book such as this is just getting people to talk to you. Maass succeeds admirably: he interviews crooked government ministers, indicted oil company executives, rebel leaders, military officers, and political scientists. He even talks with Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. They all explain the real politik of oil. The quotes are fantastic. One of the best was in a chapter about the military conquest and occupation of Iraq, and whether it was done to liberate a country from a despot, or just get the oil. Maass interviewed a captain in the 101st Airborne division who was struggling to defend an oil refinery from looters, and was ill-trained for an occupation. “I don’t know what I am doing…where are the people who rebuild countries? I just jump out of planes and kill people.”
You can’t write about oil and all its tragic outcomes without looking at alternatives: how could the oil industry operate to avoid all the poverty, crime, corruption, and pollution? This is where the book intersects with our work here at Oxfam, and our concerns about poverty and the way the oil, gas, and mining industries operate. This business can promote a lot of bad compromises: Maass says. “The problem is not that extractive industries have lower principles than other industries. The problem is that they must have better principles. Unfortunately, having a soul is a luxury the law and shareholders do not encourage.” Maass explains the Publish What You Pay campaign, and is discussing the new Energy Security Through Transparency Act recently introduced in Congress on his book tour. We hope this discussion will lead to more support for both these initiatives, because when you read Crude World, you can see that some things really need to change.