PRINT December 2004


Though we all live on it, most people never glimpse crude oil. But 2004 was when oil’s crudeness became blatant and universal. As long as we depend on this wicked substance—and we do—we will never feel clean. Crude oil is a Lovecraftian substance. It can boil at room temperature, giving off a fizz of propane. Sour crude is sulfurated and reeks like brimstone. Oil’s energy is entirely necrotic. Oil is the long-entombed dreck of extinct sea creatures, baked in primeval sediments sucked down into the crust of the earth. Some oil is older than trilobites.

Always unpleasant when experienced firsthand, oil had few uses before modernity. Bitumen was good for delaying rot in Egyptian mummies. Oil could kill the mites that caused Middle Eastern camel mange. As “Pennsylvania snake oil,” oil was the preferred term for quack patent medicines worse than the disease.

In the twentieth century,

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