The Oil Curse

We Americans are very attached to our oil.  It’s the ultimate lubricant, greasing our dreams of limitless horizontal velocity in fast cars across wide vistas, and of unlimited vertical ascent through the rarefied cultural strata of philanthropists and socialites. Best of all, oil is both ubiquitous and virtually invisible – most of the time.

I remember watching old reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid, a show whose situational comedy derived from the immense wealth suddenly conferred on a bunch of Appalachian yokels when someone strikes oil on their land.  The joke of course was that you can take the hick out of the hills but you can’t take the hills out of the hick.  But the Clampetts are noble savages, and their lack of pretension is used to mount a scathing critique of the excesses of Los Angeles’s fleshpots, just as Montaigne had done to the ancien regime using his cannibals.

Yet the show never questioned oil.  It was simply assumed, common sense, that the discovery of oil would lead to instant and enduring wealth for the lucky proprietors of crude-rich land.  We should have known better.  Already back in 1927, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! had shown how the discovery of black gold could tear apart not just a family, not just a community, but the entire nation, as the flow of easy crude-derived money jammed into the veins of the polity like a huge syringe, spreading decadence, corruption, and violence to all the corners of the land.

In his recent book Crude World, Peter Maass travels the world, visiting oil-blighted countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador, the violence-ridden Niger Delta, and the corrupt oil oligarchy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Everywhere he goes, Maass finds that oil exemplifies the so-called resource curse: rather than bringing Beverly Hillbilly-style instant, uncouth wealth, it exacerbates existing problems and creates intractable new ones.  Oil has not enriched such places, but has instead brought lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom, and more warfare.  Maass comes across some graffiti in Ecuador’s Amazon region: “Más Petróleo = Más Pobreza” [more oil = more poverty].

Usually Americans don’t think much about such issues.  But oil has become all too visible of late.  The massive leak following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon has revealed all the shadowy, corrupt webs of power that sustain oil extraction within the U.S.  It is very timely, then, that a scathing critique of Chevron, the world’s 4th largest oil company, should have been published today, right in time for the annual shareholder meeting.  The report, The True Cost of Chevron, details the environmental, political, and social costs of oil production around the world.

For we should remember that, as horrifying as the Deepwater Horizon spill may be (hopefully we’ll find out the true extent of the problem one day), in many places around the world exposure to the toxic products of the petroleum industry is a normal part of life.  The images of peasants from the Niger Delta walking nonchalantly past gas flares, which burn day and night, constantly emitting toxic fumes into the air, underline the banality of this evil.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers us an opportunity to rally opposition within the U.S. to the “oil curse,” and to push for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.  A good way to start would be by putting the CEOs of corporations that pollute the environment with massive oil spills or gas flares in prison.

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