John D Rockefeller, who made a pretty penny out of oil, offered a predictably upbeat assessment of the energy source that defined the modern world: ‘what a blessing the oil has been to mankind... the whole process seems a miracle.’ The second part of that statement seems reasonable – the first part is a matter for debate. In his scholarly but impassioned book, Matthieu Auzanneau provides a wide-ranging account of the effect oil has had on the minutiae of daily life and the grandest geopolitical narratives.
The plus column is impressive, at least on first inspection: heat, light, whizzing around in cars, and a seemingly endless stream of derivatives that make the day-to-day chores a little less onerous. Then again, all that whizzing around had its drawbacks and the horrors of warfare became more horrific thanks to gas in the tanks. It is an old debate: not quite as old as the history of how oil got here in the first place (a tale that began long before the dinosaurs) but one that is very familiar. As such, a touch of stridency is required to capture the reader’s attention. Auzanneau does not fail to provide one – though, thankfully, he usually stops short of pulpit-bashing.
The obvious points are made. Over the past couple of centuries, the exploitation and competition for oil has defined political and economic policy around the world. Borders have been drawn between nations, wars have been fought, and so on, and so on. But the wonderful thing about this book (which stretches to almost 700 pages) is the detail. The best parts come first. We learn all about the early 19th century, when the region around Baku was the focus of every oil-minded person’s attention, and then the first American oil-rushes in, of all places, the pretty woods and hilly landscapes of Pennsylvania. Companies emerged, rivalries developed and I dare say the whole affair would make for one of those excellent HBO historical dramas.
The thing about oil, of course, is that it never lost its allure. Come the 20th century it was prized by communist and fascist alike and, over a lengthier time-scale, it prodded the Western powers towards carving up various parts of the world. The British Empire was always on the lookout for some of the black stuff. And so, as the later parts of Auzanneau’s book reveal, things continued. US interest in oil is no secret but, in these pages, it is framed in a rather alarming way. Every president (even cuddly-old FDR) is brought to account and, while Auzanneau sometimes tends towards the conspiratorial (name an event and oil is apparently behind it), he makes a compelling case.
Astute analyses come thick and fast: the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, how oil issues were influenced by Gadaffi’s rise in Libya, the Biafran war, Algerian independence and dozens of other case studies. Auzanneau does not pull his punches. The French relationship with its former colonies, when it came to oil, was ‘filled with brutality and vulgar force’; the oil crises of the 1970s unleashed a ‘hellish maelstrom of violence in the Gulf’ and ‘three decades of conflagration’; the history of oil is one of ‘fortunes lost, betrayal, war, espionage and intrigue’, of ‘unholy greed’. And we encounter section titles such as ‘The White House bows down before the American Oil Empire’. I don’t usually like such hyperbole, but sometimes, as here, it seems to fit the bill.
The saddest part is that, long ago, the industry big-wigs knew the wells would run dry sooner or later – one very good reason for all those cartels – and the endless cycles of overproduction and shortage have been with us for a very long time. Auzanneau divides his book into four sections: Spring, Summer and Autumn – during which everything seemed to be ticking along tolerably well, though with some almighty hitches along the way – and now the prospect of Winter. ‘By its nature and by excelling,’ he writes, ‘humankind may have evolved to maximise energy consumption at the price of a critical expansion of chaos in the world.’ This is old, but still urgent news delivered with both passion and poise by an excellent writer.
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