U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bleg: The (Intellectual?) History of Oil

I am teaching a course in this coming fall titled “The History of Oil”—meaning petroleum, or crude oil. The class is meant to qualify as a world or transnational history, and is aimed at second, third, and fourth-year undergraduates. With that introduction, it is needless to say that this post is slightly off-topic in relation to our overall goals at USIH. But you will see by the end of the discussion that I am seeking cross-currents.

For starters, I’m excited about the course. It will combine elements of economic, political, environmental, and socio-cultural history, as well as the history of science. But I’m a bit disappointed, however, in my ability—thus far—to incorporate intellectual history into the course plan. My closest possibilities, it seems, are in relation to globalism, both as an economic and political program, as well as general economic theory.

Helping my case for intellectual history, I ran across an article by Chris Hedges in the online magazine Truthout, titled “The Collapse of Globalization.” There’s no denying that the article is polemical and indicative of authorial ideology. That said, here are a few passages that speak to the possibilities of incorporating intellectual history into a course section on globalism and the history of petroleum (bolds mine):

The ideological proponents of globalism—Thomas Friedman, Daniel Yergin, Ben Bernanke and Anthony Giddens—are stunted products of the self-satisfied, materialistic power elite. They use the utopian ideology of globalism as a moral justification for their own comfort, self-absorption and privilege. They do not question the imperial projects of the nation, the widening disparities in wealth and security between themselves as members of the world’s industrialized elite and the rest of the planet. They embrace globalism because it, like most philosophical and theological ideologies, justifies their privilege and power. They believe that globalism is not an ideology but an expression of an incontrovertible truth. And because the truth has been uncovered, all competing economic and political visions are dismissed from public debate before they are even heard.

The defense of globalism marks a disturbing rupture in American intellectual life. The collapse of the global economy in 1929 discredited the proponents of deregulated markets. It permitted alternative visions, many of them products of the socialist, anarchist and communist movements that once existed in the United States, to be heard. We adjusted to economic and political reality. The capacity to be critical of political and economic assumptions resulted in the New Deal, the dismantling of corporate monopolies and heavy government regulation of banks and corporations. But this time around, because corporations control the organs of mass communication, and because thousands of economists, business school professors, financial analysts, journalists and corporate managers have staked their credibility on the utopianism of globalism, we speak to each other in gibberish. We continue to heed the advice of Alan Greenspan, who believed the third-rate novelist Ayn Rand was an economic prophet, or Larry Summers, whose deregulation of our banks as treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton helped snuff out some $17 trillion in wages, retirement benefits and personal savings. We are assured by presidential candidates like Mitt Romney that more tax breaks for corporations would entice them to move their overseas profits back to the United States to create new jobs.

I pose this extreme example of approaching the intellectual history of globalism to solicit your opinions of more moderate and thoughtful critics. Ideas?

And while we establish those authorities, what are your thoughts on an intellectual history approach to any commodity? Do I need to dig out my copy of Nature’s Metropolis and think through some social science theory, particularly Von Thünen’s zones in relation petroleum development and exploration, as well as use for transportation theory? Will Imagined Communities suffice in relation to my presentation on the oil states? Will Carroll Pursell’s work on the social history of machines (meaning the oil-using variety) in America help me enough in relation to oil-based technologies? Do you have any historical suggestions in relation to ideology and global-warming deniers (business and anti-intellectualism)?

Thanks in advance for your help. – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim,

    You should get in touch with my Honors College colleague Bob Lifset, who’s an energy historian with a special interest in petroleum issues. He’ll have very interesting thoughts on these things. I’ll e-mail you his e-mail address off-blog (just tell him I sent you), but I figured he deserves a shout out on this thread.

  2. I would think there would be two components to the intellectual history of oil. One would be writings by established intellectual figures on oil. The other would be intellectual history as a component of cultural history. Discourse analysis and such.

    Historical versions of the following might be a way in.


    Globalization would be one set of debate but there are many others that oil would be implicated in. I’m thinking particularly of writing/debates about modernity, development and resource managment.

    I’m interested to see the syllabus. Let me know if you want any Africa suggestions.

  3. @ Ben: Done! And Bob already sent me a few links and ideas for incorporating IH into the course.

    @ Jeremy: I printed that conference CFP. The language alone in it is helping me rethink my course description (e.g. linking of democracy and oil, pro and con). And now I’ll think about searching for the writings of intellectuals on oil. On texts related to African oil, thus far the only direct suggestion has been John Ghazvinian’s *Untapped*. But Bob Lifset, mentioned by Ben above, directed me toward syllabi on H-Energy, one of which was on African oil and contained a long bibliography (here: http://www.h-net.org/~energy/syllabi/africa.html). – TL

  4. There’s a long and rich intellectual history of environmentalists, starting with John Muir and hiting a high spot in the 1960s/1970s with Silent Spring, among many others. Perhaps you can consider IH and discourse as part of the environment part of the course?

  5. Get in touch with Karen Merrill (Williams College) who has taught a History of Oil class several times over the past decade. Friends of mine took it; I wish I had.

  6. Tim, I don’t know that this book fits the bill, as it’s not an intellectual history, but you might find Toby Jones’s Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Harvard 2010) of some use. Ed Gitre

  7. There are several themes that are worth considering in the intellectual history of oil. One theme has to do with “resource curses” and (more generally) the relationship between petroleum and development (per Ed’s comment). Vast literatures here.

    Another “must-do” it seems to me is the concept of resource limits and specifically, the concept of “peak oil,” first broached by Hubbert in 1956, but since elevated into a general model of “peak everything,” and is at the center of a great deal of contemporary environmental thinking.

    A third angle in the intellectual history of petroleum would involve the literary representations of oil, from Upton Sinclair onwards. The idea of oil as a demonic force draws on a deep well (sorry, sorry!) of intellectual and moral angst.

    Paul Sabin’s work is seminal in this area.

    Please do post the syllabus

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