Crown, 406 pages, $30
Fulminating comes easy to Rachel Maddow. What sets her apart from other serial fulminators is that she does it with facts — and sardonic wit.
Her new book, Blowout, takes on the fossil fuel industry or, as one person she cites puts it, the “excrement of the devil.” This is not an “on the one hand, on the other hand” type of journalistic endeavor (and who would expect it from Maddow?). She states her thesis at the outset: The oil and gas industry “is the most consequential, the most lucrative, the most powerful, and the least-well-governed major industry in the history of mankind.”
At its heart, this book is a tale of two countries, the United States and Russia, and how they have been warped by a rapacious fossil fuel industry. In her view, almost everything comes back to the industry. It’s the “key ingredient in the global chaos and democratic downturn we’re now living through,” she writes. The industry is so rich, so “ginormous,” so intertwined with every aspect of our lives and the lives of everyone on Earth that, if you follow the dots, it explains how almost everything in the world works and will ultimately “fatally injure the whole freaking planet.”
The book’s title is a technical term for that horrifying moment when, if pressure in an oil or gas well builds and control systems fail, the fuel races back up to the rig and explodes in a fireball. Blowout reads like Maddow’s MSNBC monologues, piling outrage on top of outrage, peppered with breathless asides warning of Armageddon: “Hey, in the quest for American energy independence, maybe a few of us have to take one for the team — line up your pets, line up your eighth graders.” You can almost see that finger jab as she drives home the point.
Maddow’s tale ties together fracking in Oklahoma, Russian “sleeper” spies, the debauched son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, “earthquake swarms,” poisoned pets, the hacker Guccifer, Moammar Gadhafi’s death, and a secessionist movement in Texas. In tracing the industry and its impact on our lives, Maddow begins in 1859, with the discovery of “rock oil” and, a few years later, John D. Rockefeller’s founding of Standard Oil. She takes the story up to today’s inventions — hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling — that have revolutionized extraction and helped launch America on its road to “energy independence.”
An inseparable part of America’s fossil fuel history, Maddow points out, are the federal and state tax breaks for the industry, what she calls the “longest running welfare program in the nation’s history.” This spawned a symbiotic relationship, as the fossil fuel industry began to feed on the body politic, eventually creating its own “corporate shadow foreign policy.”
The ultimate victims, Maddow says, continue to be average Americans, in thrall to an industry that gives them jobs but threatens their health, even their lives, all the while undermining democracy.
Russia, a country that lacks strong democratic institutions, comes off even worse, beset with “the Resource Curse”: abundant energy resources that create enormous cashflows but that crowd out the more stable and diversified roads to economic development. The result is “poor governance and high corruption [that cause] devastating economic, health and environmental consequences at the local level, and high incidences of conflict and war.”
Maddow deftly describes the sad truth that Russia and its citizens paid a steep price for Putin’s overreliance on energy. “Now in his twentieth year running the show,” she writes, “Vladimir Putin presides over a metaphysical unforced error: the tragic scuppering of one of the potentially great nations in the world.”
Maddow’s sources include some of the best writers on contemporary Russia, including Masha Gessen, Mikhail Zygar, Karen Dawisha, Nina Khrushcheva, and Anna Nemtsova. She includes a quote from the world leader who probably knows Putin better than anyone, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and speaks Russian: “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
There are a lot of bad guys in this book. But there are a few good ones, too. Like Austin Holland, head seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey, who, under great pressure from the industry and its supporters to stop his research, found that disposal of wastewater from fracking was, indeed, linked to an astounding increase in earthquakes in the state. Eventually, he left his position and headed for New Mexico and a job with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Maddow doesn’t think the fossil fuel industry is going away anytime soon, although she says it will eventually: “Coal is dead. As dead as whale oil and kerosene and every other fuel source we once believed we couldn’t live without. Oil and gas are dead, too — only they don’t look sick yet.”
The world, she says, must figure out how to get along without them. And although it seems hard to believe after more than 350 pages of industry horrors, Maddow claims that “this is a doable, winnable fight here at home.”
Not surprisingly, Maddow doesn’t shy away from hyperbole in Blowout: “Democracy either wins this one or disappears.” But we readers have to ask ourselves, is it really hyperbole?