It’s the Crude, Dude. Like, for real: McQuaig Tells It Like It Is
Scholars have told us that, in Biblical times, prophets were something akin to our modern intellectuals. They were spiritual authorities or teachers in a certain sense, but they were also analysts of the ways and means of their times. The prophets who spoke well of the policies of rulers were genially lauded and given favorable treatment by royalty. Those who were more critical—which is to say, more honest—were often banished to the wilderness.
Canadian author Linda McQuaig may find herself in the desert soon. Her latest book, It’s the Crude, Dude, from St. Martin’s Press, is one that neither those at the helm of the world’s wealthiest business enterprises—the major oil companies—nor those at the top of the world’s most corpulent and aggressive government—that of the USA—will want you to read.
But because of the refreshingly accessible, prodigiously detailed, and thoroughly circumspect analysis of contemporary geopolitics and energy policy offered in these pages, I say it should be required reading for any high school economics course.
Into his libretto to the fantastically successful Victorian operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, W.S. Gilbert tucked this little gem: Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream. This is the most resonant message in McQuaig’s book—that American aggression in the Middle East is at its heart a quest for something much less noble than democratic ideals, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while unspeakably despicable, were not simply random acts of fanatical hatred for which American foreign policy bears no innate responsibility, as the President of the United States has repeatedly and publicly exhorted, possibly because his own indoctrinated sense of victimhood allows him to believe it himself in spite of massive evidence to the contrary.
But McQuaig balances her condemnation of the profit-hungry ethics of modern institutions of business and governance by noting that the large scale institutionalized deception being offered as world news in our society is not merely the smokescreen of demented, wealth-crazed, lone-wolf madmen in lushly appointed corporate boardrooms behind closed doors. Rather, it is the product of a complex network of business and government interests which relies on a complacent—even supportive—misinformed public to underpin a quest for economic and geopolitical primacy based not simply on access to but direct control of what has become, in our highly industrialized age, the world’s most key resource for fueling economic expansion and extravagant lifestyles—dude, it’s the crude. Oil, that is. Texas Tea.
With regards to the primary motives behind the US’ involvement in the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s and in the current, ongoing occupation of Iraq, McQuaig writes:
Nestled into the heart of the area of heaviest oil concentration in the world is Iraq, overflowing with low-hanging fruit. No permafrost, no deep water. Just giant pools of oil, right beneath the warm ground. This is fruit sagging so low, as it were, that it practically touches the ground under the weight of its ripeness.
Not only does Iraq have vast quantities of easily accessible oil—or low-hanging fruit, as Gheit calls it—but its vast store of oil is almost untouched…”That’s why,” as Gheit puts it, “Iraq becomes the most sought-after real estate on the face of the earth.”
So, yes, Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator who wreaked havoc upon his own people. But McQuaig shows conclusively that the same high-level US officials who spoke so harshly of his refusal to disarm post-9/11 were shaking hands and gleefully doing business with him right through his worst atrocities, like the gassing of the Kurds in 1988 and other earlier genocidal gestures. Why the sudden interest in democracy and human rights from Washington? And why do maps of Iraq’s oil resources—or “meat charts,” as McQuaig calls them—figure so prominently in the pre-invasion documentation studied by Dick Cheney and top oil executives alike?
And, if the United States government is so firmly convinced of the inherent merits of its form of democracy, why did it move in the 1950s to depose Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, and to replace him with a brutal autocrat monarch with extensive Western ties and pro-Washington leanings? And why, since 1945, has it unilaterally supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, one of the most undemocratic and obstinately oppressive regimes of modern times? Why does it continue to support Israel in its heinous crimes against the sovereign people of Palestine?
And if big business is intent on evangelically extolling the values of capitalism, why did a super-select group of oil industry executives meet at a Scotland estate in the 1920s to mutually agree not to compete with one another?
McQuaig approaches her investigation of how it’s oil, oil that makes the world go ’round with a journalist’s eye, a concerned citizen’s zeal, and with the narrative voice of a master storyteller. She pulls no punches but spares no details. Her inquiry takes the reader from Caracas to Amman. McQuaig converses with Hugo Chávez over ice cream and with executives of the American Petroleum Institute, one of the US’ most notorious lobbying groups, in their Washington boardroom.
The author exhaustively explores the underlying rationales for much that is going on in the Middle East and elsewhere, but she also investigates what is not going on—like, say, a comprehensive and commensurately robust plan for alternative energy development in the United States. It is one thing for the President to wax optimistic about instilling vigor and opportunity in the reworking of American energy policy around an ethic of conservation; it is quite another for the government to heavily subsidize the production of gas-guzzling SUVs and to censor or at least downplay the opinions of a dizzying lineup of top scientists who declare, not as a spurious argument but as the end product of decades of research that, in no uncertain terms, Western lifestyles are wrecking the planet:
I’m picking on the SUV partly because it somehow serves as a metaphor for the absurdity of the situation we find ourselves in, if for no other reason than that these enormous, awkward vehicles seem so…well…unnecessary. There’s another aspect to this story that makes it emblematic of the saga of global warming: how easily the problem could be corrected if there were serious political will. … This, then, is the story of how Luddites in the auto sector, fearful of risking their dominant market position, have declined to take us where any sane person can see we must go, hiding behind claims of technological “can’t do,” hoping the public won’t realize that what we have here is, in fact, a case of technological “won’t do.”
McQuaig underpins her hypotheses with historical fact, not secondhand speculation. She discusses the culture behind the earliest oil boom towns of antebellum Pennsylvania, where a feller named Rockefeller first dipped his hands into the black gold. She shows how the energy crisis of the early 1970s was a victory for the third-world peoples whose natural wealth had been for too long exploited by foreign corporations, and how that relatively minor loss of market control inspired business executives and government officials in the US—including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in their disco days—to dedicate the rest of their careers to making sure it would never happen again. No longer would it be enough for US oil companies to merely have access to oil—absolute control would be the goal from then on.
She tells the story of James Akins, who was made US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia just in time for the gas lines. While highly prized for his knowledge of the Arabic language and culture and for his good standing in that sphere, Akins was fired by the White House for suggesting on national television that directly seizing control of Arabian oilfields might not be the best course of action in response to the 1970s OPEC embargo. Akins favored a more introspective, conservation-centered approach. Kissinger didn’t, and Akins was cast into the wilderness.
Again speaking of the recent invasion of Iraq, the author says:
Those who scoff at the notion that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by an interest in oil often suggest that there would have been other ways to get the oil. Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian academic who teaches at Harvard University, has made this sort of argument: “If all America cared about was oil, it would have cozied up to Saddam,” thereby presumably assuring America’s access to Iraq’s oil. But access to oil is different from control over oil. Without control, access can be cut off at any time. With control comes not only inevitably bigger financial rewards but also mastery of the world’s most crucial resource. Control has therefore always been the ultimate goal.
This statement in and of itself might mean very little if McQuaig did not supplement her observation with hundreds of pages worth of the history of corporate geopolitics. She did.
Far from anti-American doom and gloom, the author’s ultimate analysis goes, at least partially, something like this: the American people and more generally the Western world as a whole are probably willing to make adjustments in lifestyle and in ideology if they are allowed to see, naked, the repercussions of the inefficiency which they have come to regard as a birthright. The human race, if it is anything at all, is adept at adaptation. But because this inefficient consumerism generates huge profits for the select few, those at the top of the pyramid have been moving steadily since long before the Second World War to consolidate their power over not only the oil industry but also over education, media, and the very government which ought to have as one of its first duties the protection of its people from such massive cynical fraud.
This is why many of the oppressed peoples of the third world harbor such enmity against the United States—not because of something so absurd as “jealousy” of American freedoms, but because of the very real and immediate costs of the American lifestyle which have been systematically, increasingly outsourced to the third world by American business interests. McQuaig points out that, all in all, the energy crisis of the 1970s resulted in a lot of changes for the better. America became 30% more energy efficient virtually overnight. If Americans will stand up and demand that their government be held accountable for its dubious diplomacy and its sponsorship of maniacal profiteering policies in its businesses, the external “threats to national security” so brazenly trumpeted throughout the mainstream consciousness would evaporate in short order. But as the years roll by, this course of action seems to grow increasingly unlikely. Americans are being indoctrinated to think of themselves in virtually any situation as innocent victims of foreign hostility. In fact, many Americans and other Westerners are the victims of nothing more than their own willful blindness to the plight their leaders are largely responsible for imposing upon the rest of the world.
George Orwell once wrote that “we have become too civilized to grasp the obvious.” This is an observation confirmed by McQuaig in these words from the closing chapter of the book:
The West’s excessive energy consumption is aggressively defended, by those like Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as part of America’s freedom. As Ebell said: “When you start limiting people’s access to energy, you limit their ability to make choices. We’re opposed to things that limit people’s choices.” Choice is, of course, almost incomprehensible to the people of the developing world—not just because they generally live under dictatorships, but because they have so little access to the world’s resources. Although they make up more than two-thirds of the world’s population, they consume less than one-third of its energy…Sadly, if there was ever a willingness to question the morality of the vastly unequal consumption of resources around the world, that moment seems to have passed. In the wake of September 11, the West’s willingness to even acknowledge the problem has ebbed, putting the immorality of inequality further than ever off the agenda.
Perhaps that’s why George W. Bush has warned us again and again to be prepared for not just a ‘War on Terror’ but a very long and involved ‘War on Terror’—because those in power know full well (no pun intended) that the continued gluttony of Western enterprise, if left unchecked, will only increase the threat of rebellion and violent reaction for generations to come, as supplies of oil and even of drinking water grow thinner with each passing year, as the effects of climate change make themselves more and more manifest with every season.
I urge you to read It’s the Crude, Dude, especially if you are still of the naïve persuasion that the leaders of business and government in our society always say what they mean and mean what they say. One has to do much digging to recover meaningful messages from beneath the glossy surface of mainstream media reporting. One could not ask for a more thorough exhumation of a quickly perishing reality than that offered by McQuaig. Much more than a veteran journalist, she is truly carving a niche for herself as a prophet of our time.
Be informed. This new edition of McQuaig’s book is available from booksellers in the US as of September 19, 2006.
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