Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Making the world go round

I have nearly finished Peter Maass' Crude World. Usually when I like a book, I say it is a "delight" or a "pleasure" to read. In this case, those words aren't really appropriate, what with all the terrible tales, but it is a great read nonetheless. Maass's book is a series of impressionistic essays about oil's impact on the world, particularly on the places where the oil is. It is not a happy story.

He starts off in Equatorial Guinea, a country with lots of oil and few people. It should be a little Singapore off Africa, but instead it is a kleptocracy with the leadership class flying jets while the people starve. They also coopt Western banks companies and politicians. Riggs Bank plays a particularly sordid role as the ATM for the despot. Then it is off to Nigeria where the populous Niger Delta, which should be a vibrant environment and living space, is a nightmare of pollution and random government destruction of villages.

Maass's argument is not with oil companies, although he is highly critical of them. Instead, his argument is that oil companies are in a business which by its nature provides incentives to be corrupt and shady. He says that if Apple had to go get its chips from under the ground of failing states, we would be bemoaning the horrible practices of Steve Jobs. This isn't to excuse the oil companies, but to refocus on the real problem.

This isn't the sort of book to help you understand oil's role in the economy, or the history of oil. I think the book for that is the Prize, a book I own but I have not yet read (this one joined the semi-secret pile of unread books on the play-room bookshelf. Not exactly secret, but covert so as not to showcase the growing number of unread books.) No, this is the book to read to go beyond the dry stories to see what is happening on the ground.

No comments: