In Addicted to Oil: America’s Relentless Drive for Energy Security, Ian Rutledge portrays the motorization of the United States of America. He argues that America’s oil dependence determines how it makes foreign policy decisions and offers a convincing historical, sociological, economical, and political assessment of how and why this has come to pass.
Rutledge begins by providing a history of America’s dependency on oil. By reviewing the US industrial age in this context, he highlights the immense role motor vehicles and oil corporations played in the country’s growing need for oil. He points out that the 50-year period from 1910-1960 was fundamental to the creation of individualized motor reliance, whereby man eschewed public transportation in favor of his own vehicle. In addition, huge corporations, such as Ford and Chevron, lobbied congress for the greatest construction endeavor in American history: the interstate highway. Under the auspices of effective city evacuation in times of crisis, the highway initiative was approved and passed by congress.
The author declares the construction of the interstate highway system as the monumental success of the motorization of America. He notes that once the infrastructure was complete, reversion would be virtually impossible both physically and psychologically, as society would push motorization forward on its own—albeit with a little help from their friendly local advertisers. With cities built around the idea of automobiles, in the 1960s America became the biggest importer of oil with the bulk of its resources coming from Venezuela, although the Middle East was quickly becoming one of the main sources of fuel for the nation.
Rutledge describes a point in the American imagination where the citizenry consumed mass amounts of a resource from a region they hardly knew. He points out the irony that despite America’s technological development of motorization, it was based on and advanced by the resources of a country that later many Americans viewed as backward. In a country known for the highest ownership of cars (832 cars per thousand population as of 2001), America’s dependence on oil is uncontested. As such, any occurrence in the domestic and international oil realm will undoubtedly affect the oil addicted nation. Therefore, it was not at all surprising that when daily production of US domestic crude oil reached its peak and then began to decline in 1970, it caused an oil shock and led to a rapid increase in oil imports by the mid-1970s. What was surprising however was the fact that many Americans had no idea that their country even imported oil in the first place; so adamant were the US administration and oil companies to keep Americans consuming oil that they seemingly chose to ignore evidence that the country’s oil reserves were quickly declining.
Once this realization hit home and could no longer be denied, the rigorous search for fuel began. The domestic search brought Alaska to the forefront but not without complications or controversy. The American public had serious concerns about endangering the environment and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in addition to the fact that some government administrators began lobbying for drilling under the direction of special interest groups in hopes to improve their chances for reelection. With the domestic search temporarily put to rest in order to appease the population’s desire to save their earth, the global search commenced in earnest. It soon became clear however that it was exceedingly dangerous to depend on countries that were politically unfriendly or unstable for such a crucial and irreplaceable natural resource. America had to secure a fuel source that would have no political strings attached through the burdensome holds of diplomacy.
With hostile nations such as Iran holding the wealth of petroleum, the Gulf catering to the ever increasing oil demands from fast growing countries like China and India, and Americans just simply not wanting to change their mode of transportation to more fuel efficient vehicles, it would seem that the only means of finding and securing fuel is to control an area with the desired resource. As Rutledge argues, the Iraq war did just that for America.
One of the many problems of relying on another state’s natural resources is the concept of “eminent domain,” which Rutledge discusses in depth as the right of any independent state to turn private property into public property and by so, allocating that land for whatever purpose it so desires. In terms of oil exploration, eminent domain allows states to profit from their natural resources by taking a share of the profits from whichever company it gives a concession. Eminent domain also provides the state with the ability to retract any land it has given to any company. However, this is not a problem under the rules of occupation where a state loses its legal rights of eminent domain. Thus, occupation becomes a means to a very specific end: oil.
Rutledge points out that with its occupation in Iraq, the US will no longer have to rely on Saudi Arabia’s oil supply or kneel politically to the conflicting will of a hostile nation for its domestic demand; it now had its own private reserve of proven oil wealth. Also, by controlling global oil reserves and having the ability to maintain a higher price for fuel, oil companies will be able to bolster their profits. Providing a noteworthy differentiation, the author explains that not all oil companies aim for the same results and stresses the distinctions between global conglomerates and independent oil companies.
According to Rutledge, the linkage between oil consumption and American foreign policy is problematic. Several solutions are given; chief among them is the need to find alternative energy sources. But more importantly, his description of a nation consumed by the culture of motorization presents the most logical solution to its transformation: The mentality of mass consumption must be tackled before any real solution is able to be put to work, let alone succeed.
About the author: In 1989, Ian Rutledge, together with a colleague, established the Sheffield Energy & Resources Information Services (SERIS), an information provider for the energy sector. SERIS has carried out consultancy work in the UK, France, Cuba, Colombia and Bolivia, and has participated in conferences in the UK, France, Holland, Colombia, Algeria and Qatar. Rutledge received his Ph.D. in Economic History from Cambridge and at the Centro de Investigaciones en Ciencias Sociales (CICSO) in Buenos Aires in 1973. His other works include The Integration of the highland peasantry into the sugar-cane economy of Northern Argentina, 1930-1943 and Land and Labour in Latin America: Essays on the Development of Agrarian Capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Addicted to Oil: America’s Relentless Drive for Energy Security by Ian Rutledge
Published in 2005 by I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London.