'Crude World' by Peter Maass presents distubing oil picture

Warning: If you are an undiluted believer in the greatness of American capitalism, the performance of multinational corporations and the individual freedom embodied in unlimited use of gasoline-powered automobiles, stop reading here. Peter Maass' exposé, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $27 is not for you, unless you come equipped with an open mind ready to be jolted by unpleasant scenario after unpleasant scenario.

Maass is a journalist who has traveled the world during the new century to figure out the oil culture. He believes that Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Defense Department secretary during the George W. Bush presidency, was lying when saying the invasion of Iraq had "nothing to do with oil."

But Maass also believes the anti-war spokesmen were exaggerating when saying the invasion occurred only because of oil.

Maass felt compelled to learn more, to grasp the consequences of a commodity "that is extracted, refined, shipped and poured into your gas tank with few people seeing it. It has no voice, body, army or dogma of its own. It is invisible most of the time, but, like gravity, it influences everything we do."

What Maass found is perpetually informative, and perpetually depressing. Thousands of books about the oil culture exist in English, and thousands more in other languages. Maass' book is in a class by itself, as he constructs his relentless indictment on a foundation of first-rate reporting and superb writing.

The chapters focus on these nations: the United States (especially Texas), Russia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela and Ecuador. Maass presents variations on a theme, depending on the geography, but the theme is remarkably consistent: Those who manage the multinational oil companies will do just about anything — no matter how immoral or even illegal — to increase their market share of black gold. Those in government who control the oil will demand just about anything to increase personal wealth while leaving their countrymen to rot in poverty and a despoiled environment. In other words, oil is a curse, as it corrupts absolutely.

The examples are unforgettable. Perhaps the least familiar for most readers will be what has occurred in Equatorial Guinea, with its population of about 500,000 "spread over several islands in the Gulf of Guinea and on a postage stamp of land between Gabon and Cameroon."

Maass visited the tiny nation during his reporting, before being expelled for asking questions of government officials, diplomats from other nations, native laborers and oil company executives. The expulsion came from President Teodoro Obiang, described by Maass as a vain, corrupt, greedy, murderous man who is nonetheless feted by oil company executives.

After more than 200 pages of documented disgrace, Maass offers recommendations for change, some grounded in alternate energy development, others grounded in human decency. Maass cites Ida Tarbell, the American journalist whose book exposing Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller appeared in 1904. The guts of Tarbell's exposé demonstrated how the brilliant Rockefeller made his fortune by creating an unlevel playing field.

Tarbell wrote then that "There is no cure but in an increasing scorn of unfair play — an increasing sense that a thing won by breaking the rules of the game is not worth the winning. When the businessman who fights to secure special privileges, to crowd his competitor off the track by other than fair competitive methods, receives the same summary disdainful ostracism by his fellows that the doctor or lawyer who is unprofessional receives … we shall have gone a long way toward making commerce a fit pursuit for our young."

Maass comments that Tarbell was correct more than a century ago, and is correct today. Amen to that.

Steve Weinberg is author of a biography of Armand Hammer, founder of Occidental Petroleum, and a dual biography of journalist Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.