Crude Reality : Petroleum in World History


This concise, accessible introduction to the history of oil tells the story of how petroleum shaped human life since it was first discovered leaking inconspicuously from the soil. Leading environmental history specialist Brian C. Black connects the subsequent exploitation of petroleum to patterns in world history while tracing the intricate links between energy and people after 1850. For a century, human dependence on petroleum caused little discomfort as we enjoyed the heyday of cheap crude—a glorious episode of...

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Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History

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This concise, accessible introduction to the history of oil tells the story of how petroleum shaped human life since it was first discovered leaking inconspicuously from the soil. Leading environmental history specialist Brian C. Black connects the subsequent exploitation of petroleum to patterns in world history while tracing the intricate links between energy and people after 1850. For a century, human dependence on petroleum caused little discomfort as we enjoyed the heyday of cheap crude—a glorious episode of energy gluttony that was destined to end. Today, we see the disastrous results of environmental degradation, political instability, and world economic disparity in the waning years of a petroleum-powered civilization—lessons rooted in the finite nature of oil. This “crude reality” becomes tragic when we measure our overwhelming reliance on this geological ooze.

Considering the nature of oil itself as well as the specifics of humans’ remarkable relationship with it, Crude Reality reveals our modern conundrum and then suggests the challenges of our future without oil. It is this essential context, the author argues, that will prepare us for our energy transition. Black brings to this book a global perspective and a wide-ranging technical knowledge presented specifically for general readers, making its scope much broader than any other survey. Written by a major scholar on the history of petroleum, it is an essential contribution to environmental history and the rapidly emerging field of energy history.

The paperback edition features an updated epilogue and a bibliography.

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Editorial Reviews

With world oil supplies dwindling toward inevitable depletion before this century’s end—at least by some estimates—energy producers are scrambling to uncover hidden reserves as well as preparing to transition into an era of such renewable resources as wind and solar. With the aim of evaluating the crisis and looking ahead to a postpetroleum society, Black, a Pennsylvania State University environmental-studies professor, provides a well-written, comprehensive history of humankind’s 150-year love affair with the fossil fuel once dubbed 'black gold.' Not surprisingly, Black points out, first discovery and usage of oil dates back to ancient times when Babylonians and Persians drew it from open pits for medicinal and lighting purposes. Commercially viable drilling didn’t really begin, however, until the 1850s with the urgent demand for kerosene; and as automobiles and plastics have become ubiquitous, oil consumption has grown steadily to 87 million barrels a day worldwide. In analyzing modern, oil-related problems such as global warming and Middle Eastern wars, Black emphasizes the huge challenges society faces in shifting from petroleum to alternative energy sources.
Environmental History
Black provides a historical synthesis of the oil industry from 1730 to the present and covers a range of topics organized around the idea that humans created a 'petroleum culture' so complex that it often obscures relationships between our behavior as consumers of oil and the significant environmental, political, and social costs involved in producing oil. . . . Not since Daniel Yergin’s book, The Prize, has there been a synthetic account that grapples so thoroughly with the transformative effect of oil in world history. . . . Black . . . [provides] a . . . more condensed and readable account with a bolder and clearer analytical framework that offers an accessible entrée to the subject for non-experts of energy history and for scholars alike. . . . Black crosses national borders and moves swiftly over 250 years of industry development to present a story in which oil stars initially as 'black goo' but transforms over time with the aid of human accomplices into a powerful actor that drastically alters the world’s climate.
Donald E. Worster
Brian Black is one of America's leading historians of energy and the oil industry, and this book provides scholars and the general public a splendid guide to those subjects. It is concise, thoroughly researched, wide-ranging in focus, and as relevant to our times as history can be.
Adam Rome
As we begin to imagine a world with less and less oil, Brian Black’s Crude Reality helps us understand the petroleum era, which was amazingly brief yet profoundly transformative. I recommend this wonderful book to anyone interested in the biggest questions about the past, present, and future.
Richard P. Tucker
We have long needed an environmentally oriented global history of petroleum, so Brian Black’s book is timely and welcome. A leading expert on the history of oil politics and economy in the United States, he has now expanded his scope to include the other major petroleum regions of the world, from Mexico to the Middle East and Indonesia, as each moved to center stage in the world’s strategic politics. He writes with a lively wit, yet conveys the gravity of the challenge we face now, the momentous decline in the fossil fuel era of history.
Ted Steinberg
A terrific book on what happens when a world founded on limitless growth collides with the harsh reality of a finite resource.
This engaging and thought-provoking book directs readers' attention to the vital role that petroleum occupies in today's global economy and geopolitical arena. Black has done a masterful job of explaining a complex topic with a clarity that makes his book well suited for supplemental reading in undergraduate classes and appealing to the general reading public. This is no academic tome. Rather, it is a skillfully articulated synthesis of recent scholarship and analyses that situate petroleum in an unvarnished and objective global perspective. Employing straightforward, nontechnical prose, Black guides readers through historical examinations of petroleum that discuss the resource's geology, engineering, exploration, production, transmission, refining, consumption, and the too-infrequently addressed subject of petrochemical applications. His conclusions are hard to ignore; the global society depends on fossil fuels at a time when the world's peak production of petroleum has likely already occurred. Summing Up: Essential. Public and undergraduate libraries should purchase this book.
Global Environmental Politics
A general history of oil is certainly welcome and will prove to be of interest not only to scholars of the history of energy, but also to many non-specialists with an interest in out contemporary history and economy. . . . There is also no doubt that Brian Black . . . has made a most valuable contribution with this long history of oil from the classical world until today. The work is informative and useful, with a quantity of details rarely to be found in a single work. . . . The book is well written and always clear and easy to understand. It will certainly encounter the general interest of readers and make for worthwhile, fruitful reading enriched by many good photos.
Journal of World History
Crude Reality stands out . . . for Black’s skillful incorporation of environmental and cultural history into the more standard narratives focusing on the geopolitics of state and corporate development of global oil resources. . . . Black also makes an important and highly original . . . contribution by analyzing oil itself as a ‘critical actor, capable of shaping an entire way of life.’ . . . Regardless of precisely how much oil may be left, though, Black’s insightful book demonstrates that other ‘crude realities’ like environmental damage and global warming will likely favor those nations that move beyond oil and pioneer the cleaner alternative energy technologies of the future.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742556553
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/10/2014
  • Edition description: Updated
  • Pages: 298
  • Sales rank: 1,026,359
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian C. Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona, is the author or editor of several books, including the award-winning Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom. His articles appear in OnEarth magazine, USA Today, Junior Scholastic, and Christian Science Monitor, as well as scholarly journals. A specialist in the environmental history of North America, Black specifically studies humans’ changing ideas of energy. Residing in the energy landscape of central Pennsylvania, Black has seen the ridge and valley section gutted for coal, capped with wind turbines, and now fracked for natural gas. Petroleum, though, makes for the most compelling story of all.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Beginning as Black Goo
Part I: Cultural Exchange, 1750–1890
Infrastructure: Drilling for Saltwater
Chapter 1: From Black Goo to Black Gold
Chapter 2: Crossing Borders to Grow Supply
Infrastructure: Shipping Crude throughout the Globe
Part II: Going Mobile, 1890–1960
Infrastructure: Pumping Gas
Chapter 3: Modeling “Big Oil” in the U.S.
Chapter 4: The Culture of Petroleum: Hitting the Road
Chapter 5: Marching for Petroleum: Supply and Weapons
Infrastructure: Want Fries with That?
Part III: The Globalization of Petroleum Dominance, 1960–Present
Infrastructure: Big Science Helps Big Oil
Chapter 6: Consuming Changes
Chapter 7: To Have and Have Not
Infrastructure: NYMEX and the Commodity of Crude
Part IV: Living with Limits and Energy Transitions, 1980–Present
Infrastructure: Climate Change Reveals a New World Order
Chapter 8: “Peak Oil,” Climate Change, and Petroleum Under Siege
Epilogue: Resource Curse: Time for an Oil Change?

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