Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass

Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass

For Peter Maass, oil is not a drug so much as a Pandora’s box. Tap a well and base instincts spew.


GEORGE OSODI/APAn Ijaw militant drives past a Soku oil well in the Niger Delta, 2004.

The first thing Peter Maass encountered when he arrived at Oru Sangama was the stench of raw sewage. The trip from Port Harcourt had not been long, even in a leaky canoe, but the tiny slum seemed a world apart from the sprawling, oil-rich hub of the Niger Delta. Sangama’s villagers, housed in a cluster of mud-brick huts, had no access to clean water or electricity. Their toilet was a filmy creek through which ran a network of pipes feeding oil to nearby processing stations. They slept in the glow of the Soku natural gas plant, which lit the night sky with carcinogenic flares. Acid rain was slowly boring holes in their metal roofs.

Across the creek, ample tap water and modern amenities were available to the hundreds of workers living at the Soku facility–one of many plants Shell operates in the region. Shell, which has been doing business in Nigeria since the 1930s, enjoyed exclusive exploration rights during the colonial era. Since Nigeria’s independence, however, it has been the dominant player competing with other international oil companies for government contracts. Hundreds of millions of barrels of oil have been extracted from Nigeria in the past fifty years, but the country’s 150 million residents have not benefited from the profits. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth is distributed among 1 percent of the population, while the overwhelming majority of citizens languish on less than $2 a day.

Such gross economic disparities have understandably exacerbated ethnic tensions and helped to fuel a string of rebellions against the state–most notably the Biafran war of 1967-70, a failed Igbo-led secession effort in which as many as 2 million people died. Nigerians have been spared such widescale violence since the Biafran disaster, but a low rumble of discord continually pits the military and its corporate allies against the people. By the time Maass arrived in the Niger Delta, in the fall of 2004, an Ijaw warlord named Dokubou Asari had established himself as the region’s new “alpha rebel,” having amassed a small army and adequate means (acquired through bribes, ransoms and oil illegally siphoned from the pipelines) to fund his uprising. It was Asari, not the Nigerian government or Shell, who granted Maass permission to travel and secured arrangements to take him upriver to Sangama.

A month before Maass visited Sangama, the Nigerian army had decimated the village. Maass didn’t accept his guide’s explanation that the assault was unprompted. He knew Asari was using Sangama as a stronghold and suspected that Asari or a subordinate was being punished for failing to share the profits from stolen oil. But he was equally dismissive of the Potemkin village Shell had erected in the area to tout its commitment to corporate responsibility (the water tower was dry, the health clinic padlocked, market stalls empty). And at the company’s main office in Lagos, he confronted Chris Finlayson, director of operations in Nigeria, with the claim that Shell had provided the soldiers room and board at the Soku facility, and that helicopters had evacuated workers from the site a few hours before the raid–suggesting complicity or at least foreknowledge of an attack that left several civilians dead. Finlayson deftly denied all this, of course. But after investigating the incident for himself, Maass was well equipped to sniff out corporate dissembling, a far more subtle stench than sewage.

There is much in Maass’s new book, Crude World, a global tour of the “violent twilight of oil,” that stinks of corruption. There is also, to cite a few chapter titles, no shortage of plunder, rot, contamination, fear or greed. On the other hand, as Maass illustrates in a chapter on Saudi Arabia, there is very likely a serious and fast-approaching shortage of oil in the world. The global economy has relied for decades on cheap and abundant crude, with far too little regard for the political, economic and environmental consequences of such heavy reliance–not to mention the sustainability crisis that looms ever larger as demand continues to grow.

For activists and politicians seeking to alter our domestic approach to energy, the metaphor of choice is addiction. In order to strengthen our security and ensure a prosperous future, we are repeatedly told, our dependence on foreign oil must be curbed. This familiar trope, lifted from self-help shelves and talk-show television, is paternalistic and misleading. America is sick, it’s true, but never fear: your elected leaders have diagnosed the problem and are working on the cure. Take two of these carbon permits and call me in the morning. Maass, though, seems less concerned with soothing readers or pricking their conscience than understanding the sources of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Consequently, Crude World employs a different set of metaphors. For Maass, oil is not a drug so much as a Pandora’s box. Tap the well, and out spews the basest of human instincts.

The problem with the petroleum business, as with other extractive industries, is not the stuff per se but the convoluted and destabilizing process by which desirous governments collaborate with multinational companies and exporting nations to siphon it out of the ground, filter out impurities and transport it abroad. Factor in the geological fluke that determined which reservoirs got situated under which regimes, plus uniquely high stakes in terms of demand and profit margins, and a near-total lack of transparency and regulation, and you wind up with an industry that’s perilously prone to volatility and foul play. OPEC’s 1973 embargo of shipments to the United States quadrupled global prices and revealed the world’s vulnerability to disruptions in supply. In 2008 a speculative frenzy took the world on another wild ride, as prices shot up to nearly $150 per barrel before plummeting to just over $30, a disconcerting harbinger of instability in the years to come. Once oil “peaks”–that is, once the world passes the high point on a theoretical bell curve measuring production, after which output can only decline (experts disagree about when this will, or did, happen)–price swings will likely intensify along with the mad scramble for dwindling reserves. Costly, low-yield efforts to prospect for new reservoirs deep beneath the ocean floor, and to squeeze salable crude from adulterated tar sands and “heavy” (high-density) oil, reveal the increasing lengths to which today’s oil conglomerates and their political enablers will go to keep the pipelines pumping. The International Energy Agency expects a relatively slow rise in the production of conventional liquid fuels over the next generation, coupled with a surge in the development of unconventional sources. This shift may buy some time, but it can’t prevent the coming clash between rising demand and declining supply. The specter of a sustainability crisis, experts argue, is reflected in IEA projections of global oil production, which have been dropping steadily in recent years.

Needless to say, climate change and wide-scale suffering are and will likely remain byproducts of oil extraction. As Maass explains, resource-rich exporters are paradoxically “cursed” by oil wealth. Leaders whose treasuries are flush with foreign cash tend to consider themselves less accountable to their citizens, more prone to shady deals and autocratic rule. Development in other sectors of oil-based economies tends to be stifled: the inflow of petroleum revenues strengthens the local currency, breeding dependence on cheap imports; and labor opportunities in the one thriving sector are minimal. Safety and environmental standards are ignored. In some cases, local residents eventually organize to protect their land and demand their fair share, at which point casualties begin to mount. In other cases (Chávez’s Venezuela and Qaddafi’s Libya come to mind), nationalization curtails corporate and foreign influence and promotes state investment in social programs, but at the risk of bolstering autocracy and exacerbating regional tensions.

Recognizing that each country’s struggle is unique, Maass–a seasoned journalist who is now a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine–visited more than a dozen oil-cursed nations in search of repeating patterns, root causes and common solutions. “Across the world, oil is invoked as a machine of destiny,” he writes. “If the inner workings of this machine are understood, perhaps an order will be revealed in the world’s disorder.” His “journey into oil” began in Iraq. In the spring of 2003, he embedded with the Marines’ Third Battalion and got a view from the front lines of the fall of Baghdad. At the time, the twin symbols of the looted National Museum and the heavily guarded Oil Ministry seemed to crystallize the conflict for many observers, including Maass. Upon closer inspection, though, he found the simple determinism of “blood for oil” unsatisfactory. If the Bush administration was singularly concerned with controlling a steady flow of Middle East oil, why had it unleashed a regional whirlwind? And if securing the Ministry of Oil was an immediate priority, why, weeks later, was the director of Baghdad’s only refinery struggling to persuade US military officers to protect the facility from looters? Maass does not adequately answer such questions in “Desire,” his chapter on Iraq’s oil conflicts–perhaps because US motives were so abstruse, contradictory and complicated by obscene ineptitude. But his inchoate understanding of the extent to which oil shapes and distorts geopolitics piqued his curiosity. The investigation that ensued would span the globe and keep him occupied for the next several years. Its insights are keen and timely, confirmed with each new oil-related scandal. To take one of the most recent and egregious cases in point: Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador and top adviser to the Kurds, admitted in October that he had a significant financial stake in Kurdish oil and was negotiating deals while at the same time helping to craft the Iraqi constitution–which just so happened to grant Kurdistan autonomy over its oilfields. “While I may have had interests, I see no conflict,” he told the New York Times. Others saw it dripping from the corner of his wallet.

Maass readily admits the challenge of “profiling” a subject as elusive as oil. “How do you coax secrets from a liquid?” he asks in the introduction. “To know a person, you talk to him. To know a country, you visit it. To know a religion, you study sacred texts. Oil defies these norms of interrogation…. It is invisible most of the time, but, like gravity, it influences everything we do.” His struggle to give form to this inquiry may explain the book’s misleading structural conceit. The chapter titles anatomize the industry by isolating its salient features, suggesting a dossier of vices. But with few exceptions, each chapter is set in a different country, suggesting, more accurately, a tour d’horizon. At times the pairings of regions with the traits they are meant to exemplify, and the order in which the chapters appear, seem interchangeable. Thankfully, Maass does not adhere too strictly to his schema, allowing it to organize but not constrain his analysis. And though Crude World presents a string of episodes rather than a cumulative argument, each installment is riveting and illuminating in its own right. Crude World is not the last stop for all things oil. But for nonexperts embarking on their own investigations into energy policy and the devastation wreaked by fossil fuels, it offers many worthy ports of call.

Since the mid-1980s Maass has been filing dispatches from what his colleague Tina Rosenberg has called “the chasm between truth and official truth.” His clips offer a trove of object lessons on equipoise, but they also give the lie to the notion that a reporter’s role is simply to mediate. Maass is by no means an ideologue or activist, nor does he pretend to hover above the fray. His politics are unobtrusive but never hidden; his moral compass is consistently his most reliable guide. This approach, coupled with an intrepid pursuit of the story and masterful control of its presentation, has served him well.

In July 1989, while based in South Korea as a correspondent for the Washington Post, he was among a small cadre of American journalists invited to Pyongyang for a rare glimpse of the northern half of the peninsula. “Real reporting was not encouraged,” he wrote in a short news item. A government official warned him, “If you try to distort the information of my country, it will be the last visit for you and your newspaper.” But even though Maass’s minders never let him out of their sight, he managed to peek behind the curtain. A tour intended to display only lavish tributes to the Great Leader became, in Maass’s telling, an obsessive ritual of control. At the Kochang cooperative farm, an illustration of “cradle-to-grave indoctrination,” Maass watched grade-school students answer questions about the president like little automatons, while university students denied any sexual desire before marriage. Working on the regime’s strict terms–and within the formal boundaries of beat reporting–Maass portrayed a totalitarian government exerting rigorous control over its people yet anxious over possible ripple effects from the recent uprising in Tiananmen Square, and struggling to ensure a smooth succession of power from President Kim Il Sung to his ill-prepared son, Kim Jong Il. Exposing such cracks in North Korea’s “monolithic political facade” while staving off expulsion required a high degree of tact and skill.

Or consider, in Crude World, the chapter called “Contamination,” in which he travels to the Ecuadorean Amazon. There he meets indigenous activists and Steve Donziger, the American lawyer at the helm of a landmark, multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron, the corporate parent of Texaco, which looted and poisoned the Oriente region for two decades. Chevron does not deny the devastation but claims that Petroecuador, the state-owned company that assumed control of Texaco’s facilities in 1992, is at fault. Chevron’s lawyers have tried every trick in the book (dirty and clean) to get the case dismissed; in August 2009 they produced secretly recorded conversations that appeared to implicate public officials, including the presiding judge, in a bribery scheme. (The judge denied the charge but recused himself, further postponing the monumental trial.) With stakes this high, it’s no surprise to see the case take on the dimensions of a le Carré novel. But for all the intrigue and marathon depositions, Maass writes,

The case would seem easy to prove, with the billions of gallons of waste akin to blood on the still-slippery floor of a vast crime scene. To find proof, all you needed to do was stick a shovel in the earth, taste the tainted water that came out of the ground or inhale a lungful of the polluted air, as I did. You could visit the towns and see babies with deformities and people dying of cancer. It is because of the oil, you would hear. How could Chevron defend itself against a nation of evidence?

Freed of the strictures of newspaper reporting, Maass inserts himself into the story, teases out its human drama and does not shy from issuing a personal verdict. This can be tricky territory; not every first-person journalist emerges with his credibility intact. But Maass, whose judgments are always informed by the historical record, extensive interviews and time on the ground, pulls it off.

“I followed American troops into Iraq to learn what I could from actions rather than speeches,” he writes in Crude World. He adhered to a strikingly similar position in his previous book, Love Thy Neighbor (1996), a haunting reflection on the Bosnian war distilled from his daily coverage for the Washington Post. “If you want to find the truth in Bosnia,” he wrote, “you must ignore words and examine actions, and even then, you must be careful of the conclusions you draw.” Love Thy Neighbor is a tour de force of witness and rage, a clear-eyed indictment of Serbian aggression and the Western accomplices that enabled it. The book foregrounds the sort of idiosyncratic anecdotes and personal reflections that typically occur off the clock, revealing a subtler and more psychologically complex portrait of Bosnian life under siege than one could find in daily dispatches. Maass’s style calls to mind the Polish journalist and long-form pioneer Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose work he cites in Crude World. Kapuscinski is said to have kept two notebooks in the field: one for reporting facts and one for capturing impressions. With Love Thy Neighbor Maass folded the two into one.

Although Love Thy Neighbor is chronological, it is not straightforward reportage. Part journal, part confession, the book traces Maass’s journey across the landscape of the war while charting his slow surrender to moral exhaustion. In the early days, he recalls, he remained curious and vigilant, even in the face of atrocity. Days after photos of skeletal Bosnian prisoners began circling the globe, he requested and was granted permission to visit the camps. At Omarska, an abandoned mining compound that had been converted for the day into a showpiece POW facility, he declined to interview any of the prisoners for fear of somehow hastening their execution. (“Please, don’t ask me questions,” one of them pleaded.) Later, in an interview he described as “hallucinogenic,” he boldly confronted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic with what he had seen. “We opened our entire prisons to the media, and the media focused on one very thin boy,” Karadzic insisted. One way to understand the war, Maass suggests, is to grapple with the persistent triumph of such “official truths” over blaring evidence to the contrary. But he also offers another, quasi-Hobbesian explanation: within human nature, he suggests, lies a “wild beast” that’s always “waiting in the long grass of history for the right moment to pounce.” After monitoring the beast’s every move for more than a year, and watching Western nations feed it with arms embargoes and diplomatic sleights of hand, Maass, his spirit drained, pulled out.

Despite some similarities in approach, Love Thy Neighbor and Crude World are vastly different projects. Love Thy Neighbor is the product of significant immersion; it must have taken months in such a dark horror chamber before Maass’s eyes began to adjust. Crude World is an international hopscotch; its insights are therefore more provisional, less textured. “The world of oil is an intellectual as much as a physical space,” he writes. Indeed it is, and its radius is continually expanding as demand seeps into the developing world and new fields are opened to prospecting. Maass’s impulse to move around is understandable. But one wonders what the world of oil would have looked like had he regarded it from a single vantage point. In an abstract sense, of course, he did. No matter where he is situated, he fixes his eye on the power dynamics that make the “machine of destiny” hum and allow it to roll over so many people. But since each outpost reveals the global supply chain, perhaps it would have been more fruitful for him to dig in.

Crude World is mercifully light on policy recommendations, but they are not absent. In a brief conclusion, Maass proposes a few ways to put the brakes on the oil industry. Some are familiar: stronger regulation, investment in renewable energy, dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, conservation, wind farms, light rail. Others have not yet made their way into mainstream discussion but should. Compulsory disclosure of all oil contracts would help bring much-needed accountability to the signatories. The Justice Department can apply the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to prosecute US conglomerates that broker illegal deals with governments overseas. Development aid, properly administered, can foster the use of greener fuels and technologies and decrease the value of oil, while limiting the potential for developed nations to exploit a new market. The United States, the world’s largest consumer of oil by a wide margin, should set the example on all these fronts.

Maass, who has made a career of spotting gaps between rhetoric and action, does not seem sanguine about the prospects of a green revolution. Nor is this book intended as a catalyst. Crude World may wind up shelved in the growing library of books that chart paths toward a sustainable future, but it belongs in a different class. The book is not about oil policy or the energy crisis, at least not primarily; it is a moral reckoning with basic instincts. Fear, greed, desire, exploitation: as we draw oil from the ground, oil draws out these unflattering qualities in us. Crude world, indeed. When Maass peers down the well, he sees another beast writhing.

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