Remember when gas was $4 a gallon, when crude oil at $147 a barrel looked like just another data point on an upward trend, and nothing — not even Al Gore and his traveling PowerPoint show — seemed as if it could put a damper on worldwide demand for the gooey black stuff?
We all do, but probably not as clearly as Antonia Juhasz.
Juhasz — a scholar, author and activist — is now faced with having written what may be one of the most ill-timed books in recent years, The Tyranny of Oil.
Global recession and a dramatic collapse in oil prices have snatched away one of Juhasz's best arguments, even if it doesn't change her fundamental point. Gas is back below $2 a gallon, oil is about $46 a barrel. And for the first time since 1983, global oil demand may decline.
Public animosity about high energy prices and record-breaking oil company profits have been exchanged for broader fears about an economy in the toilet.
It would be shortsighted, however, to ignore the basic issues Juhasz discusses in her book.
The oil industry has a big voice in public policy. In a chapter about the industry's role in the Middle East, Juhasz quotes Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, in 2007: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil."
Then there's the environment, the financial backing of politicians, and the impact of deregulation in financial markets and so on.
Much of what Juhasz says about Big Oil could apply to large corporations in other industries. "Nearly 75% of Americans believe that big business has too much influence over the federal government," Juhasz says.
Another problem is Juhasz's attempt to cover too much material. Entire books have been written about the formation of Standard Oil, its breakup and many of the topics Juhasz raises in laying out the misdeeds of current oil conglomerates.
In explaining the history of the industry, the book gets too bogged down by dates and details to be an overview, yet too lacking in information to be a complete register of events.
Juhasz's primary solution to the problem of the "tyranny of oil" — a phrase attributed to President-elect Barack Obama's victory speech after winning the Iowa caucus — is to break up oil conglomerates using antitrust laws (which limit the size and scope of business monopolies).
Juhasz may be right that the oil conglomerates have grown too big, but breaking up Big Oil can only accomplish so much.
In the last chapter, Juhasz offers more solutions, but without much detail. She spends a single page writing that reducing consumption of oil would be a good thing, then doesn't elaborate. Reducing oil dependency is something we all support; the hard question is how to do it effectively.
The Tyranny of Oil is not without merit. Juhasz draws interesting parallels between John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and the oil giants of the 21st century. She looks at Big Oil through the prism of the rise and fall of Standard Oil. She reminds us that those who don't learn the lessons of history are fated to repeat its mistakes.
But Juhasz's book is too stuck in the past, too focused on the various splits, mergers and underhanded dealings of oil conglomerates. A polemic against an easy enemy, such as oil conglomerates, may be based on fact and effective in inciting anger, but it does little to fix the monumental problems before us today.
Railing against modern oil giants, their deeds and their profits is not enough. Instead of anger and the destructive forces anger engenders, we need innovation, ingenuity and the sort of forward thinking that will lead to nothing short of an American reinvention.
Russ Juskalian is a freelance writer based in New York