Shah, Sonia. CRUDE: The Story of Oil. 2004. Seven Stories Press. USA. Publishers Group, CANADA.

“This book tells the story of oil from its birth hundreds of millions of year ago, when ancient creatures floated with sun-dappled seas sucked carbon out of the air, through to its maturation entombed deep underground.”

Crude by Sonia Shah: A Book Review by Theresa WolfwoodIn vivid prose and documented detail, Shah does exactly what she sets out to do. Along the way, we learn about the slow process of oil formation and the appalling rapid depletion of this resource, so miraculous it appears to do our work for us, while changing forever our human institutions and physical environment.

“Once we encountered oil, we wallowed in it, consuming crude about one hundred thousand times faster than it could possibly accumulate again.”

This small book is the best overview of the subject I have ever read. Shah is a USA–based writer and journalist who has written for many progressive publications and this is an impressively documented and well written book that provides excellent background for current environmental to political issues

“The story of oil is written on a time scale that humans can scarcely grasp, but it starts with something innocuous and seemingly peripheral: the slimy dregs at the bottom of the sea.”

With Shah we follow these dregs until they become oil, gas and tar sands. She also documents our human involvement with oil from the time of ancient Mesopotamia to our modern total immersion, the marriage of the automobile industry and oil which transformed modern warfare forever in WW 1, to the ubiquitous presence and myriad uses of petroleum-based plastics. Petroleum is also the basis of nitrogen & ammonia based explosives as well as fertilizers which created modern chemical agriculture.

The book chronicles the exploits of western nations and corporations in the Middle East as oil diminished in the USA and political strategy focussed on domination of oil–bearing countries – we know the results of those policies and interventions.

For Canadians her chapter, Running on Empty, which details the problems and consequences, including political, of the development of the Alberta tar sands is worth the price of the book alone. Venezuela also has tar sands as yet undeveloped, adding to its politically precarious position a major oil source.

My father rode a camel, I drive a
Car, my son rides in a jet airplane.
His son will ride a camel.
– Saudi Arabian saying (quoted on p. 173.)

Shah discusses the end of oil, as many have; she shows in tables the estimated reserves, ownership, profits and consumption of oil up to 2002. Canadians per capita are right up there with the USA as monster global gas guzzlers.

She writes about alternative energy sources. Solar could be widespread and cheap – but the technology is controlled by oil companies. Now is the time to examine our basic assumption that. “…according to conventional wisdom, the west’s high–tech, hydrocarbon–based society lies at the pinnacle of a natural, inevitable development path”. This is the ultimate message of Shah’s book, documented and illustrated so that we understand the folly of our assumptions, and we can have no doubt about a future without oil.

Filed under Book Reviews, Sonia Shah