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, oil refineries grew vastly more capable. People found myriad uses for the purified fractions of this complex, black slumgullion. Human beings have now consumed some 650 billion barrels of the stuff. How much is that? Imagine that the blue skies above the United States turned black. For a week, instead of rainfall, the skies gave forth kerosene, paraffin, gasoline, and tar. That volume of fluid, a week of American rain, would be 650 billion barrels.

The year 2004 was one of Mosaic omens and portents. Oil turned to blood amid a host of Pharaonic chariots. Frogs died of plague; amphibian populations were crashing worldwide. Darkness stalked the land. In Britain, homeland of Turner and Constable, “global dimming” was found to be shadowing landscapes at 3 percent a decade, while under China’s “brown cloud,” the honest glow of sunlight had dropped by a third since the 1950s. The black gold became the stuff of Midas, wrecking everything it touched.

No one profited any more; even those enriched by oil lived in rampant paranoia. To name the states selling oil is to name the basket cases of the international community: Iraq, of course, but also Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Kazakhstan, Sudan, East Timor, Libya, Chechnya. Even Norway, that byword for Scandinavian imperturbability, has its hands befouled by scandal. To name the addicted states buying oil . . . well, everybody buys oil, no matter who governs them. Even Iraq buys oil. Iraq is spending 200 million dollars a month just on gasoline. Texas buys oil. Texas imports far more oil than it can drill.

The latest war in Iraq, one of many to have been waged there, was announced as a war about freedom rather than oil. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The oil swiftly became the war and will stay that way: Pipelines make ideal targets for insurgents, because they don’t shoot back, their contents can be stolen, and nobody has to commit suicide to blow them up. The disruptive effect is jolting and revelatory since the addiction to the black flow is so consuming that no modern state can remain a state without oil. Every race, creed, color, ideology, gender, and ethnicity is petrocratic. No oil, no order. The vulnerability is total now, the helplessness so far beyond repair that no one even makes the effort; one might as well legislate against oxygen. Napoleon’s empire never needed a drop of oil, but now empires form merely to get it.

Oil is our power source. All power corrupts, but oil dissolves laws as if they were pillars of rust. The compromises are so deep as to leave no space in social life for their denunciation. Americans live in a purported democracy where an energy task force is nevertheless a Star Chamber impervious to the public gaze. The fact that Enron might have been calling the shots there should appall anybody who still believes that accounting mirrors reality.

Of course, looking back on history, even Enron’s high-velocity Teapot Dome pales compared to the awesome, multidecade ElfAquitaine scandal in Europe. The illicit beneficiaries of this oil-fueled French money laundry included Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Kohl, and François Mitterand; ElfAquitaine even reached across the Left Bank to snare Françoise “Bonjour Tristesse” Sagan. No European has the heart to cauterize the rot there, for modern Europe simply is ElfAquitaine. The names of the hapless malefactors roll like Surrealist poetry: Loik Le Floch-Prigent, Omar Bongo . . . ElfAquitaine was a shuttle service of cash-crammed Swiss valises, lubricating the ever-greater Union. There was simply no higher-ranking authority left to buy.

Unless you count the United Nations. Saddam’s oil-for-food scandal, the contours of which were still becoming public in 2004, didn’t even bother to convert the oil to Swiss francs. Saddam simply handed out chits for lakes of Iraqi crude. Reality bent the despot’s way like Midas’s whispering reeds. Small wonder that this once put-upon Sunni villager imagined that he had a Bomb, or binary gas, or killer microbes—who cared about technical details? His oil could conjure up anything for him, like a genie of flaming smoke: orbital supercannon, yachts, submarines, palaces, even a downmarket Disney phantasmagorium, bursting like a fever dream from an ocean of subterranean filth. And small wonder that the UN proved unable to control a flow of funds five times larger than its own budget. Saddam’s largesse was quietly welcome almost anywhere: Indonesia, France, Russia . . .

One has to marvel at the La Brea foundering of the New World Order in the smoking oil fields of Iraq. Not so much for its blinkered realpolitik and imperial incompetence but from an ethical perspective of moral clarity. Killing and being killed has a certain Homeric dignity—Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander, and they were all for that sort of thing—but look at that boiling, oily swarm of mercenaries, profiteers, kidnappers, gangsters, looters, decapitators, child-bombers, spinmeisters, misogynist canaille. . . . Who’s more spectacularly bad, an insane jailbird zealot like Zarqawi, or that quiet legion of global profiteers, hats in hand, from nation after nation, accepting blood-spattered payoffs from a humanitarian relief program meant to feed hungry children?

Yet there are certain spectacles even more dreadful, more grotesque—more vividly prophetic of a postnatural world defined less by the suddenness of calamity than the slowness of recovery. Consider that the Exxon Valdez cataclysm is still with us, run aground in the courts where it is steadily leaking lawyers’ fees. Exxon, ever mindful of the bottom line (though not the hulls of its ships), would far rather simply rent the American justice system indefinitely than pay up for soiling 1,300 miles of glorious American shoreline. Spilt oil from the distant year 1989 still lurks as lumps of tar, deep in the rocks and cobbles of the Alaskan coast. Of course, more recently, the Prestige soaked Spain and Portugal in bird-killing, fishery-ruining gunk. As oil spills go by volume, Exxon Valdez isn’t even in the top fifty.

Chernobyl was a nuclear accident. It rendered an area the size of Denmark uninhabitable by human beings. But Chernobyl today is pretty. Observers infallibly remark that the place looks gorgeous. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a haven for wildlife. Even Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly scorched to the bone sixty years ago, are prosperous cities now.

No such swift recovery happens from climate change. Climate change is a roaring combustion engine for slaughtering stable ecosystems and replacing them with weeds. And the richest, the best-developed, the most visually appealing areas of the planet are the parts that cannot move. Coral, for instance. Coral is created inch by inch, over eons.

The aesthetic aspect of this unfolding defilement could do with keener critical attention. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia is the world’s largest and most biologically various area. This reef—175 times larger than the Chernobyl exclusion zone—is perishing in the heat of simmering seawater, a great living legacy baked by the flames of fossils. You don’t have to imagine the Great Barrier Reef turned into algae-covered dead limestone. The odds are that you will live to see it.

In tomorrow’s reeling, smoking, lawless greenhouse world—a shameless, charmless place like a vast, sodden rubbish dump, only without any toads or frogs—any species that is not entirely rootless and opportunistic fades into grim decline. It gets chased into exile by drought, flood, and heat wave, or killed where it stands. Every native land will be unrecognizable; the landscape art of the previous century will look as oddly fake and cinematic as the plains of Mordor. Everyone will live in exile; adults will not recognize the places of their birth.

What art will be made for those circumstances? Today, one might look to the majesty in photographer Edward Burtynsky’s “manufactured landscapes”; he is the avant-garde now, for he’s the visual prophet of the postnatural world. Yesterday, there was Smithson, Ernst, maybe others. Whatever, there won’t possibly be as much of it as there is in the pages of Artforum in 2005, because every philistine trouble that haunts today’s museum and gallery system will be many times worse in a world that is poorer, far more turbulent, and extensively weather damaged. But art will be made, as it was in the trenches of World War I. Artists are a weedy lot, adaptable, fast on their feet. They can’t possibly vanish as if they were coral polyps.

What will they do with themselves?

Bruce Sterling, a journalist, is currently in Paris and heading for Belgrade, Munich, Berlin, Santa Fe, and San Francisco.