Crude World: the Violent Twilight of Oil

The use of refined petroleum as fuel, which began in the 1850s, freed hundreds of millions of people from the toil of centuries, gave hundreds of millions more a life of ease and plenty, and, by allowing great cities to feed themselves from every corner of the world, multiplied the population of the earth fivefold. Oil also gave the world a new and terrible kind of warfare, rendered great tracts of land uninhabitable to man and beast, and transferred to the atmosphere enough fossilised carbon to threaten the very survival of humanity.

There are signs that the age of petroleum has passed its zenith. Adjusted for inflation, a barrel of crude oil now sells for three times its long-run average. The large western oil companies, which cartellised the industry for much of the 20th century, are now selling more oil than they find, and are thus in the throes of liquidation. For the US magazine journalist Peter Maass, we are in a sort of petroleum twilight in which the search for and extraction of crude oil is becoming daily more difficult, dangerous, corrupt, violent and messy. It is in the nature of international trade to obscure the distant consequences of our actions. Few Californian drivers recognise that their commute begins in the squalor and desecration of Ecuador's Oriente Province and ends in the loss of 4,000 American lives in Iraq. In this short and vivid book, Maass seeks to show them how these things are linked.

Starting off in Firdos Square, Baghdad, where the statue of Saddam Hussein is being torn down, Maass assembles grim evidence of the curse of oil on its producers: in Nigeria, a journey upriver in the Niger Delta, past hideously polluted swamps and Shell's Potemkin villages; in Azerbaijan, the Intourist hotel in Baku in the 1990s; the Daura refinery in Baghdad; a Lukoil board meeting in Moscow; an oil-company town in Saudi Arabia; and in Venezuela the fortress of El Country Club, Caracas.

Oil is of no use to the local poor, because it uses capital, not labour. In one marvellous scene, Maass visits Marathon Oil Corporation's gas-liquefaction plant on the island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, where even the paint is imported. "Those are local rocks," says the Texan manager, pointing to the kerbstones, "but importing them would be cheaper."

Maass shows how oil exports cause the local currency to appreciate, sucking in luxury goods that displace domestic industry and agriculture, causing unemployment to rise, and widening the gulf between rich and poor. By a bizarre sort of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, rising oil prices confer unearned laurels on such ordinary men as the late shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. If you possess oil, you do not have to tax your citizenry or seek their consent for indebtedness (Ecuador), a busted ideology (Soviet Union), pig-headed militarism (Ba'ath Iraq), quixotic good works (Venezuela), irresponsible missionary work (Saudi Arabia) or eschatological Bonapartism (revolutionary Iran).

Maass offers a compelling insight into the notoriously corrupt practices of the oil industry. Because crude oil sells itself, and because an Exxon has no technical or commercial edge over a BP, an oil concession is only ever won with a bribe. The slow-motion liquidation of the western oil majors will probably not improve the situation. "The ethical practices of Exxon and Chevron," Maass writes, "might even look good when compared to those of Russia's Gazprom and China's CNPC."

But he cannot be everywhere. There is nothing here, for example, of the dialectical counterpart of his third world havoc - the bored megalopolises of the west, with their obese and depressed populations. He does not visit Norway, where a tight-knit society seems to have withstood the curse of oil. As for the UK, which Maass also ignores, North Sea oil was a disaster because it drove up the exchange rate for sterling, bankrupted manufacturing industry and left the country hanging on the uncertain profits of the City and the forbearance of international capital markets.

The book ends on an optimistic note at a windfarm in the Mojave Desert, close to the base of a Marine Corps battalion that helped topple the statue of Saddam referred to at the beginning of the book. As a means of harnessing the energy of the sun, the windmill is barely more efficient than the oil well, but Maass is surely right to point out that we nevertheless have the means to replace oil.

For all this has happened before. In the 17th century in Spain, men struggled to comprehend why the silver mined at Potosí (in the land now known as Bolivia) had produced not prosperity, but poverty in metropolitan Spain. In the 18th century, an Irish banker named Richard Cantillon wrote the epitaph of both American silver and modern oil.

“When the excessive abundance of money from the Mines," Cantillon wrote, "has . . . raised the produce of the land and the labour of workmen to excessive prices . . . the money purchased by the Mines will necessarily go abroad to pay for imports; this will gradually impoverish the State and render it in some part dependent on the Foreigner . . ."

James Buchan's latest novel, "The Gate of Air", is published by Quercus (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis