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Crude by Sonia Shah (thoughts)

February 21, 2013

Crude by Sonia Shah is subtitled The Story of Oil, which perfectly sums up the book. While it’s nonfiction, Shah brings a narrative sense to her analysis of oil’s rise in the world that will keep even nonfiction wary readers engaged. I promise! I myself am skeptical of ‘narrative nonfiction,’ at least its use of novel-like scenes of dialogue or imagined inward thoughts that seem out of place in journalistic work. However, Crude tells a story without any of that, thereby combining credibility and readability into a powerful portrait of the oil industry and its impact. I should have expected nothing less from Shah, whose elegant prose and insightful analysis I’d already encountered and loved in her two other books (The Fever and The Body Hunters).

The story is deeply outrageous. While I already knew of the role oil plays in geopolitics, I learned so much, all of it infuriating. A random sampling: the oil industry bankrolls and partners with many university geology departments, to the point that the word ‘co-opting’ springs to mind. The US Environmental Protection Agency exempts pick-up trucks and SUVs (two of the most popular classes of vehicles, for my readers outside the US) from the stricter air-quality regulations regular cars need to meet. The oil and car industries cold-bloodedly destroyed street car public transport systems in the US (the Justice Department found them guilty in 1946). Canada’s tar-sands oil extraction process involves open-put mining two tons of sand and clay for every barrel of oil. Two tons. BP, aka British Petroleum, rebranded itself in Europe to appear more environmentally friendly and reaped in the profits accordingly. And the story of the Nigerian delta, whose population has been attacked and suppressed many times over due to its oil-rich status, was told in a moving but never sentimental way. When she talked about drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (this book was published in 2004 and thus way before the BP oil spill) I cringed the whole way through like a mute Cassandra.

One of my most deeply held ethical beliefs concerns being an informed consumer. My decisions as to what goods and services to buy and in what quantities have an impact around the globe. To bury my head in the sand and pretend otherwise simply because I feel overwhelmed at times is unacceptable. I am by no means perfect, and I don’t want to give that impression. I haven’t opted out of twenty-first century society, and I deeply love my possessions and my wi-fi and my occasional airplane trips for how much they enrich my life. But I do try to line up as many of my practices as I can with my ethics, particularly when deciding whether a purchase is really necessary and who my money should support, and to do so requires me to learn more by reading books likes Shah’s.

Where was I? Oh yes, blogging about a book, not politics. My point is: I strongly urge all residents of oil-consuming nations to read Crude. Which is, based on the extent of the industry around the globe, just another way for me to say everyone.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Oil on Water by Helon Habila : I haven’t actually read this novel, but Amy has (it’s her review I’ve linked to) and thanks to her it’s been on my wish list! Habila is a Nigerian author, and this novel deals with the oil-rich Delta and its terrible conditions that Shah describes in Crude.
  • The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard : an excellent, straightforward account of how consumer culture demands natural resources at an unsustainable and destructive rate. The simple, powerful presentation is a wonderful wake up call, but Leonard stays above cheap ‘guilt trip’ tactics.
  • Walking with the Comrades by Arundhati Roy : another journalistic account of the environmental and human cost to natural resource demand, although this one employs a more personal approach.
15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2013 2:58 pm

    You, my dear bloggy friend, are the ONLY person on the planet that could make me want to pick up a book about the history of oil. But you have made it sound intriguing. I need to see if my library will ILL it since it sounds like it’s a book that would teach me quite a bit.

  2. February 21, 2013 3:18 pm

    perfectly understandable that you monitor for spam, I watch the video titled “Crude, the story of oil” every time it replays. I believe it was first shown on NOVA and now is replayed at least twice a year on both History 1 and 2. Now that my grandkids are old enough to appreciate it I plan to purchase both the book and the video for each set of them as the visual may drive the bunch of them to actually read the book. I wish Ms. Shah would update her book to include the last 8 years. Rewatching always brings something I missed previously or forgot. In 2011, Oct. copy of Scientific American mentions the Tethy’s Sea in an article about The Dinosaur Baron of Transylvania, it seems to have been a crossroads for dinosaur migration and I just imagined burning oil and seeing the souls of ancient dinosaurs rising out of our exhusts.

  3. February 24, 2013 4:20 pm

    Great review, but don’t think I can tolerate any more than I already know about oil and those who profit from it.

  4. February 24, 2013 9:49 pm

    Oh Lord, I didn’t know that about the geology departments. That gives me many sad and angry feelings.

  5. Ash permalink
    March 5, 2013 1:10 pm

    Eva – Have you come across/read this title on gulf oil spill – Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill by Antonia Juhasz. I found this in my office cafeteria but haven’t picked it yet. Any thoughts?

  6. May 11, 2013 7:50 am

    I didn’t love the writing of this one as much as you did, but still found it a really interesting and engaging book. Thanks so much for linking to my review too :) You’ll have to read Oil on Water one of these days! Another one (that I read pre-blogging) that I think you’d enjoy is The Politics of Bones – deals with the Ken Saro-Wiwa activism and trial, and talks about the politics that oil companies bank roll. Really interesting.


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