Matthew T. Huber. Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. xxi + 253 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-7784-9; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-7785-6.
Reviewed by Brian Black
Published on H-HistGeog (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Robert M. Wilson (Syracuse University)
Probing the “American Way of Life” with Oil
Lifeblood is a provocative, thoughtful consideration of oil in human life. Cultural geographer Matt T. Huber creates an argument that works most effectively at the “meta-level” in order to consider a fairly subtle distinction from existing conceptions regarding the importance of oil to the modern human. Setting Lifeblood against such books as economist Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2011) and journalist Peter Maass’s Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2010), Huber argues that the need for oil infected the very fabric of American life in the late twentieth century. He does not recount a history of technologies related to petroleum; his specific concern is the interdependence of oil and neoliberalism through the “privatized geography of wealth accumulation centered on the home and automobile” (pp. xii-xiii).
The primary point of Lifeblood can be traced back to one of the first critics of the commodity and its industry, economist John Ise. When Ise wrote The United States Oil Policy, he first critiqued the industry’s ethics and waste. However, he followed that by commenting on the implications for American consumers who applied cheap oil to “unimportant purposes.” Cheap oil was a prime example of the extravagance being used “by fat-bellied bankers and bourgeoisie ... by gay boys and girls in questionable joy rides ... by smart alecks who find here an exceptionally flashy and effective way of flaunting their wealth before those not so fortunate as themselves.” While readers will be aroused by Huber’s provocations, his account may leave some readers asking what is new here.
As a study of economics, Huber’s account is less tied to existing literature than some recent tracts. Whereas Mitchell, for instance, sets out to turn on its head basic ideas, such as the “oil curse” (which emphasizes a rather deterministic suggestion that oil development causes the decline of existing cultural and economic institutions), Huber, by contrast, is primarily content to demonstrate oil’s primacy to contemporary human life. In this well-trodden narrative terrain, he restates the basic idea put forward in a number of books; Huber argues that through neoliberalism the concept of the “oil curse” also can be applied to developed societies that need to maintain supplies during an era of scarcity. However, in the end, Lifeblood is not concerned with such ecological perspectives. Indeed, Huber’s book is strikingly devoid of efforts to connect its overall premise to environmental degradation. His focus is the large-scale connection between political power and grassroots culture as each negotiates the growing importance of petroleum.
Lifeblood makes its argument innovatively. Huber’s book spurs thoughtful consideration of its reader by striking a specific point and primarily reinforcing it through repetition. His goal is “to untangle the specific political logics underlying this vision of life and suggest that this broader politics has as much to do with the persistence of our ‘oil addiction’ than anything else” (p. xii). This is no rant against “the Big Oil machine” per se, yet Huber’s primary purpose places Lifeblood rather unfairly with diatribes of such writers as James Kunstler (The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century ) and Terry Tamminen (Lives per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction ).
In fact, Huber is leading a group of young scholars from various fields that utilizes the theoretical points of culture studies to probe the oddly pervasive commodity petroleum. A grand cultural icon of modern society, petroleum serves these scholars’ scholarly purposes more than it benefits from their new research findings. Huber, like other analysts of this ilk, does not necessarily wish to broaden or deepen our understanding of petroleum; he wishes, instead, to use crude as a representation of a sweeping cultural pattern. Energy historians, for instance, will likely find Lifeblood unsatisfying; however, geographers and cultural theorists will likely find Huber’s book to be one of the most succinct, thoughtful, and direct critiques of humans’ life with oil.
The original nuance that Huber ascribes to his work is best put in his own words. Referring to the statement that oil enables the “American way of life” as oversimplification, he seeks to deconstruct the meaning of such a statement. “Capitalism should not be an explanatory concept,” he writes. “Capital must continually be produced and reproduced through what might be called the politics of capital: the lived practices and meanings that naturalize capitalist forms of power and hegemony.” Lifeblood argues that oil’s relation to these patterns of life is “central to the rise of neoliberal hegemony in the U.S.” In explaining his approach to the topic, Huber continues: on the one hand, “fossil-fuel-powered machinery is critical to the construction of a specifically capitalist form of despotism over ‘work’—or the labor process. On the other hand, oil specifically has become important in efforts to compensate for that despotism through the construction of a ‘way of life’ aligned with the logics of capital—freedom, property, and entrepreneurialism” (p. xv). This introduction seems to set the stage for an exploration of the culture of mass consumption that emerges—particularly in the United States—after World War II. However, that is not necessarily what occurs in Lifeblood.
In making his point that oil enables the neoliberal—pressing for privatization, deregulation, and an overall reduction in government control of the economy—dominance of American politics and culture after 1970, Huber is, rather simply, arguing that any transition or shift in energy patterns will be fruitless without first making changes in this cultural perspective. He offers no suggestions, though, about how changes to the social fabric that have grown over decades and that are steeped in the grip of incredible sources of cultural and political power might be rebuffed. In fact, he only makes a modest suggestion that such a change is necessary.
In the closing portions of Lifeblood, Huber writes: “A new ‘energy transition’ away from oil must also be viewed as a political struggle to produce new spatialities of social life.... Thus the biggest barrier to energy change is not technical but the cultural and political structures of feeling that have been produced through regimes of energy consumption” (pp. 168-169). In short, the modern American’s reliance on crude is not just about innovations and new technologies; energy transitions, Huber suggests, require alterations to supportive and dominant cultural ideas. Such a point gives Lifeblood a bit of an elitist tone as it suggests a complete lack of control on the part of grassroots consumers. Thus, Huber misses a significant opportunity to use his intriguing critique to mobilize and compel his readers to any sort of action.
Instead of telling a cohesive story of petroleum’s cultural impact, Huber’s chapters sketch out an extremely superficial chronology of America’s relationship with crude. Without background explanation or context, each of these chapters pulls representative moments from the story of oil in the United States: first, the U.S. economic Depression and the construction of the American way of life ideal; second, the ensuing growth in crude’s applications through refinement and chemistry; and, third, the implications of the 1970s oil crisis. Two additional chapters frame this chronology that each briefly manipulate them into Huber’s framework. Of these, chapter 2 offers some new insight. In “Fractionated Lives,” Huber specifically uses the postmodern analysis of culture studies to explore the consumer side of life with petroleum after World War II. In particular, he exhibits a control of chemistry that allows scholars to begin to penetrate the significant role that petrochemicals have played in human life, particularly through the widespread use of plastics. Huber demonstrates a strong control of the technical information as he astutely deconstructs this innovation back to the innovations in refinement to create a more “flexible crude” that is tailor-made for mass consumption. This is a stunning addition to the more typical consideration of petroleum as an energy source for transportation.
The selectivity of Huber’s chronology may prove frustrating to historians and those interested in energy studies. For instance, in the case of the 1970s oil crisis, Huber writes: “popular understandings of the ‘energy crisis’ tended to reinforce the shift to neoliberalism” (p. 99). His analysis overlooks an entire host of actors (including environmental thought, geopolitical concerns, and changes in the larger world order) in order to tie the economic difficulties of the 1970s to a carefully selected series of episodes of the sitcom All in the Family. While they serve as a revealing case study, the analysis would have benefited from a broader context of sources.
Lifeblood’s insights, however, do a great deal to provide some oily context to the emergence of neoliberalism, and, in the end, this is Huber’s primary goal. As an outcome of energy shortages in the 1970s, Huber writes: “In the wake of the 1970s, the shift of American politics toward free market ideology and deregulation of industry should come as no surprise.... Thus the rightward shift of American politics could not happen with the financial and organizational power of ‘Big Oil’ alone. It required not only the decentralized popular energy of the suburban silent majority but also the dispersed coalition of independent oil producers and royalty owners who delivered both money and millions of votes. What connected ‘little oil’ producers to the ‘little guys’ owning suburban homes was a vision of a ‘free’ society composed of individual enterprises that only asked for the fair opportunity to compete on an even playing field with upward redistribution of wealth.... Under these conditions the necessary relations between cheap oil and ‘life’ become more pronounced” (pp. 126-127). This is a suggestive and provocative observation and Huber supports it with a selection of material artifacts, including the cover of the AARP Bulletin and the design of gas stations. However, readers will likely feel unconvinced.
Although a work of journalism, Steven Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012) might be seen to make a similar critique of “Big Oil.” Although it tells a much more specific portion of this story by focusing on the largest corporate entity (ExxonMobil), the critique of modern humans and oil is similar. Providing vast documentary support, though, Coll’s book makes its point more coherently and conclusively than does Lifeblood. Additionally, Coll begins to wrestle with the social and cultural implications of environmental thought after 1970, a dynamic that Huber surprisingly leaves unexplored. Using internal documents and speeches, Coll demonstrates the importance of the issue of climate change, for instance, to ExxonMobil’s effort to exert or enforce Huber’s neoliberal agenda. These complex but fascinating factors, however, are not part of Huber’s consideration.
A priority of Lifeblood appears to be applying the terminology or jargon of culture studies to the case study of oil. While such efforts will wear on some general readers, Lifeblood also effectively captures some nuance of the unique relationship between humans and their crude. The use of such terminology as “agency of oil,” “oil fetishism,” and “energy flows” is a welcome addition to the academic discourse over petroleum, which often emphasizes dollars and cents, and barrels per day.
Lifeblood, therefore, marks a tremendous addition to the literature on oil by initiating a broader understanding of the human relationship with crude—a cultural analysis in which the primary admission is that our American society (our way of life) requires that we are addicted to crude. For those who read much of what is written about oil, Huber’s book will be an edgy, new way of organizing known truths. For broader scholars in geography and other fields, Lifeblood offers a most approachable entrée into thoughtfully considering the importance of oil in human life.
Lifeblood is strongest when it accepts these limitations and does not aspire or claim to tell the history of oil in under two hundred pages. It will prove provocative reading for theorists and geographers or historians considering consumer society. It represents the most succinct, theoretically grounded critique of the culture of oil yet in print.
. John Ise, The United States Oil Policy (1926; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1972), 209-210. For extensive consideration of this source, see Roger M. Olien and Diana Davids Olien, Oil and Ideology: The Cultural Creation of the America Petroleum Industry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). For a full consideration of scholarship on oil, see the special issue “Oil in American Life,” Journal of American History (June 2012), http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/projects/oil/contents/index.html.
. For more on the oil curse, see Terry Lynn Karl, Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
. See, for instance, Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); and the work of Imre Szeman, for instance, “Crude Aesthetics: The Politics of Oil Documentaries,” Journal of American Studies 46, no. 2 (2012): 423-439. See also more specific literature on auto-culture, including Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
. For a discussion of petroleum’s absorption into American culture prior to World War II, see Brian C. Black, “Oil for Living: Petroleum and American Conspicuous Consumption,” Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (2012): 40-50.
. By contrast, a number of sources specifically extend this critique to suggest imperatives for action. See, for instance, Brian C. Black, Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012); Gavin Bridge and Philippe Le Billon, Oil (New York: Polity Books, 2012); Michael Klare, The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources (New York: Picador, 2012); Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (New York: Holt, 2005); Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (New York: Mariner Books, 2005); and Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).
. See also Joseph Pratt and William E. Hale, Exxon: Transforming Energy, 1973-2005 (Austin: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas, 2013).
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