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Our Complicated History with Oil, Power, and War

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When we reflect on the history of the world and the progress of human society, it’s incredible to think about where we started and where we are today. We’ve innovated, we’ve discovered, we’ve grown, we’ve developed. But at what cost?

The following is an excerpt from Oil, Power, and War by Matthieu Auzanneau. It has been adapted for the web.

Progress has long been considered a given: a guaranteed occurrence in human societies, a wheel that once set in motion continues to spin, aided only by human intelligence and innovation. But what really sparks or tempers progress?

The answer is energy potential—a physical reality measured by its capacity to change the nature of other things around it, to alter the order of the world, or to strengthen it. Each time that we put something in motion, each time that the state of something changes in one way or another, a flow of energy is in play. The economy—the framework around which our industrial society is ordered—and all of the technical progress it mobilizes are no exceptions.

In other words, energy is the ultimate universal currency. As Georges Bataille wrote in 1949, “Essentially wealth is energy: Energy is the basis and the end of production.” Without adequate energy sources, ingenuity would be rendered impotent, its fruits out of reach. Progress would not progress.

Today, fossil fuels provide four-fifths of the energy we use. Nothing has changed on this front since the early days of the steam locomotive—apart from the ever-increasing amount of energy used, which has been compounded many times over to keep the economic machinery churning. Since the end of the Second World War and today more than ever, oil remains, among fossil fuel sources, the principal and most precious fuel of what I call “technical humanity.” It is omnipotent, versatile, polymorphic, ubiquitous.

Yet energy is ambivalent about what it sets in motion. It also has limits. And it is clear to anyone who actually looks that material limits define what is possible and what is impossible. Science fiction writer Frank Herbert put it this way: “Energy absorbs the structure of things, and builds with these structures.” This obvious fact, however, is often ignored. Since the dawn of technological progress, the human spirit has fooled itself into believing that we are progress’s empowering force. But we are merely driving the course of progress. The tank of its real empowering force is still largely fueled by oil.

This book explores the paths followed so far by our primary source of energy, as well as the manner in which these paths have determined many dynamics and balances of power among us. For more than a century and a half, black gold has remained the most secure source of wealth. The industry that extracts it from beneath Earth’s surface has experienced revenues as much as ten times higher than any other industry’s. Economic and military power structures, as well as many critical aspects of our way of life, have been metabolized by the energy derived from oil, and shaped by forms specific to it.

The destiny of the strongest industrial nations is pegged to oil, starting with the United States, where more wells have been drilled than anywhere else on Earth. Absorbed by a nearly universal appetite for the American way of life, the world’s population has become, in spite of our misfortunes, the largest and most affluent in history. Now where are we headed?

American Soldier

American soldiers in front of the Iraqi Ministry of Oil after taking Bagdad in 2003. The oil ministry was one of the few public buildings protected by the US military during the pillage that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein. Photo © Cris Bouroncle/AFP

It was on 9/11 that I began to ask deeper questions about the link between power and energy. Watching events unfold from France, where I was working as a journalist, I found myself saying, “Just wait and see, Saddam will end up taking the punishment.” Afterward, it was extremely hard for me to believe that Saudis were allowed to board a plane and leave the United States immediately after the attacks, without having to answer any questions from US authorities. With great astonishment I learned that the Bush and bin Laden families had actual direct connections. And I ended up wondering, what were the odds that these kinds of connections would exist?

Like many who grew up during the end of the great American century, I had long been immersed in American culture. I had an insatiable appetite for its cinema, its music, its literature, and more generally a sustained fascination with its creativity, humor, and vitality. I was dazzled by its intimacy with each innovation that the new technological world offered to me, a child of an “old Europe” so often tired of itself. That’s why the tragic catastrophe of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a personal affront to my idea of America, the one I cherish so much.



And then I wondered if the Bush phenomenon constituted a singularity in American history, or if, on the contrary, it revealed a filum, a logical historical continuity between successive incarnations of US power and the energy sources essential for the expression of this unprecedented power.

Oil, Power, and War is the result of my inquiry.

Energy from petroleum arrived at a key moment in the development of our species. Today, the very thing that drives technical humanity has also become its nemesis. Risks multiply as the combustion of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases, which in turn upset the planet’s climate. This danger, for the time being unresolved, masks another that is more direct and perhaps more immediate. Once consumed in our various machines, energy dissipates and disintegrates irretrievably in the form of heat, becoming almost useless. In this way our limited reserves of fossil energy are being consumed with everincreasing greed. The history of those reserves is one of a series of depletions offset by the discovery of new stocks. But, lacking accessible reserves able to compensate for the natural decline of the large number of fields discovered in the last century, we risk a drastic disruption in supply—perhaps before 2030, even as early as around 2020. In any case, much too quickly for an industrial humanity that has sprouted from fields of crude to learn to live in peace with a perpetual lack of crude.

The perils of our dependency on fossil fuels have been understood since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though they’ve been consistently ignored. And so, the abundance of energy offered to us in the form of oil has been able to transform the world by itself. The pages ahead tell the story of how that happened, explore the conditions that allowed this abundance to precipitate turbulence, and revisit the history of societies lifted to excess and the lives of people caught up in the storm. Oil, Power, and War is also the history of people and institutions—corporations, nations—who fight to stay in the eye of the cyclone, believing it possible to impose their own direction on the vortex, or to transgress its limits.

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