Book Review Essay: Blowout

If You Read Only One Book This Spring, Make It This One!

Author: Rachel Maddow

Reviewer/Essayist: PATRICIA REMY

“The oil and gas industry has been remaking the world in its favored image for generations. And it’s not finished with us yet. Climate disaster has put a spotlight on the need for human society to evolve beyond dependence on petroleum, but our very capacity to decide on that – or anything – remains at risk as long as the industry is still ranging like a ravenous predator on the field of democracy…

The oil and gas industry – left to its own devices — will mindlessly follow its own nature. It will make tons of money. It will corrode and corrupt and sabotage democratic governance. It will screw up and — in the end — fatally injure the whole freaking planet. And yes, it will also provide oil and gas along the way. And jobs for the workers who produce those things for it.

Blowout, p. 364-65

The previous 363 pages in 29 chapters lead to this stridently stated and undeniable conclusion.

Maddow takes the reader on a global tour of petro-states from her own USA (Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma) to Equatorial Guinea, and on to Putin’s Russia. The common thread: the world’s oil industry is almost completely dependent on technology developed by Western corporations and subject to their whims. BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and mostly ExxonMobil under its (former) CEO Rex Tillerson exert an influence on world economics and politics which overshadows what a normal citizen can even imagine. Yes, not uncoincidentally, the same Rex Tillerson who served briefly in the Trump administration as Secretary of State. Just after he signed a deal for gas and oil drilling with Russia, using ExxonMobil’s technology, in the Kara Sea.

Refreshingly, Maddow does not demonize the employees of these companies. All of us have to work in order to eat and pay the rent. Very few of us play a rôle in determining what kind of economy our jobs serve. We the citizens and voters rely on our governments to rule responsibly for the common good. Which becomes difficult if the government is coerced or bought. With the above-mentioned “tons of money”.

Here it is impossible to do justice to the depth and breadth of the research Maddow undertook for her book. I will provide you with some gems which I personally found fascinating, mostly fascinatingly horrific, and encourage you to read the tome for yourselves. Please, even if it is the only book you read this year.

The founder of OPEC himself labelled oil as “the excrement of the devil.” The former minister of oil for Saudi Arabia stated, “All in all…. I wish we had discovered water” (p. 101). Long-chain hydrocarbon black goo residing in the ground is in and of itself not evil. It is what humans make of it. Combined with greed or coupled with an expansionist ideology, it can become extremely toxic.

Peak oil? Nobody talks about that anymore, not since the development of hydraulic fracturing for shale oil reserves. Maddow guides us through many a fracking adventure. The most memorable one to my mind, undertaken in August 1969, involved the use of a nuclear bomb. Yes, you read that correctly, a nuclear bomb buried at 8000 feet in the Rulison shale formation of Colorado. Fortunately, the technology was too expensive for the yield, so this particular “peaceful use of the atom” (remember that one boomers?) was discontinued.

Maddow’s case study in courage occurred in Oklahoma, where conventional fracking using horizontal boring and megatons of water took hold. The residents of Oklahoma had little compensation from it. While the state GDP rose, social services declined, thanks to tax breaks for the “essential” economic driver, petroleum. Meanwhile, Oklahoma experienced an increased frequency of earthquakes. After 2010 and the intensification of hydraulic fracking, a 10,000% increase in tremors exceeding 3.0 on the Richter scale was registered. Here the first heroes of Maddow’s tale emerge: the teachers of Oklahoma who finally protested against the impoverished school system. Profits from the state-subsidized oil industry were manifestly not trickling down to the general population.

Eventually, after years of collecting data meticulously, another hero, the head researcher of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, stepped up and proclaimed the connection between fracking and the unusual seismic activity. For his trouble he was run out of town.

Here some nifty Maddow factoids at your fingertips:

  • Two hundred years ago, in 1824, Joseph Fourier (1768–1830) discovered what we now call the greenhouse effect. Fourier suspected that the Earth’s atmosphere could act as an insulator, holding in some of the heat the surface had received from the sun, captive heat which would otherwise be reflected back into space. (Ultranerds: Note that Fourier drew upon the work of an earlier scientist, Horace Bénédict de Saussure).
  • Today, in 2024, we are celebrating (if that is the word) the 200th anniversary of Fourier’s discovery. The carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere is increasing, and, yes, it is getting uncomfortably warm on our beloved globe.
  • Claude Pouillet (1790–1868) investigated Fourier’s discovery further. He speculated that it was the water vapour and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which held infrared radiation back and warmed the Earth enough to support plant and animal life. Humans today are finding out that you can get too much of that good thing.
  • In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote (1819–1888) refined Fourier’s theory in her home laboratory. She demonstrated that carbon dioxide and water vapour trap the heat of the sun. Because she was a woman working outside an established institution, her discovery went unrecognized. The man who eventually read her paper at a scientific meeting was embarrassed by the silence imposed on his woman colleague. Women were not allowed to address such august assemblages. Unfortunately, we missed this anniversary at the Greenzine. We’ll make amends in 3019.
  • Several years later, in 1859, John Tyndall (1820–1893) conducted a more complicated — and importantly, official — experiment, which confirmed Newton Foote’s results.
  • The term “greenhouse effect”, used to describe the phenomenon, was coined by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

Why am I saying this? Because, as any sentient being who has attended a public school during the past thirty years knows, it is fossil fuel emissions (especially carbon dioxide, methane, and sulfur dioxide) which are producing the greenhouse effect and causing global warming. Humanity is nowhere near dealing with the challenge.

Maddow has collected all kinds of tidbits, a number harvested from the Mueller Report on Russian interference and misinformation-spreading which influenced the USA election of 2016. Not to mention the bloody sins committed by Russia in the Ukraine when the latter decided for democracy over a decade ago – and continues to pay the price. Or the den of internet trolls and fake-news spreaders (the “Internet Research Agency”) housed coyly near the Kremlin at 55 Savushkina Street in Moscow.

Her account of the decades-long oiligarchy in Equatorial Guinea is chilling.

Despite the superior Western technology essential to oil and gas drilling in the Kara Sea, the big oil corporations have never, despite their engineering prowess, come up with effective means of cleaning up their massive messes. Hydraulic fracking consumes immense amounts of fresh water and produces just as much slick as waste. Pumping it back into the ground, whence the oil and gas came, triggers seismic activity. Spills at sea spread over tens of thousands of square kilometers. The attempts at limiting them are feeble – surface mop-ups with materials equivalent to paper towels and diapers. [You can easily google the 20 top oil spills, the largest, deliberate, during the Gulf War of 1991.]

Maddow, the eternal optimist, trusts in citizen heroes like the teachers of Oklahoma and its brave seismologist. I hope she is right. Despite 2023 being the best year yet for renewables, it was also the year in Canada and the USA when the most oil and natural gas was extracted.
So those heroes have to be us. Let’s remember that we are not consumers, as much as certain actors want to convince us that our main function in life is to suck at the economic teats of the powerful. We are first and foremost citizens in a democracy which still manages to live and breathe. It would do more if it could. Here, thanks to everyone in Canada who continues to work for proportional representation, it might someday. Hopefully soon enough.

In her final chapter, Maddow argues for the containment of oil companies. I wish all of us luck with that. There is a model worth imitating. I think of the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. Because its dividends are distributed equitably by its democratic government, Norwegians are guaranteed social security, good health care, and an excellent education.

It’s not paradisiacal; Norway has not broken away from oil. While the oil and gas industry makes up 8% of the USA economy, in Norway it is 24%. Norway has, however, used its petroleum profits to invest in an infrastructure based on renewables. Perhaps it’s time to tone down oil production there, something Norwegians will have to decide. Meanwhile, a sovereign wealth fund to fund citizen-friendly laws to regulate energy production, especially from renewables, might be a direction for our democracy to consider pursuing – before we all blow out.

Editor’s Note: see also the accompanying “Sidebar for Nerds” on the discovery of the greenhouse effect.

Book ReviewEssay: Blowout © 2024 by Patricia Remy in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

To see and hear Rachel herself search C-Span “Mount Holyoke College Rachel Maddow Blowout”

Blowout, Rachel Maddow, 2019, Crown Publishing New York, ISBN 978-0-525-57548-1

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.