by Paul K. Haeder & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & 've been hearing it throughout Spokane over the past year: "What can we do to prepare ourselves for the coming energy crisis?"
But Sonia Shah, journalist and author of Crude: The Story of Oil, is more concerned about giant Western oil companies exacting huge economic and cultural tolls on penniless and vulnerable countries.
"Over the next two decades, the U.S. oil industry plans to spend the biggest chunk of its exploration budget searching for crude not in Alaska, Texas and Norway but in developing countries," Shah says. "Such operations can be reasonably expected to render small amounts of oil with large effects on local people. The business of oil extraction in countries as diverse as Angola, Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Peru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago has coincided not with an increase in prosperity but with a sharp downward slide in living standards and an increasing corruption and conflict. In Iraq, Nigeria and Columbia, the piles of corpses ringing Big Oil's stomping grounds can perhaps speak for themselves."
Shah, who is in Spokane on Monday, Nov. 20, as part of her Pacific Northwest "oil depletion" summit, isn't opposed to communities like Spokane asking self-focused questions: What can we do to buffer ourselves from the vulnerabilities of our food supply (much of what we eat in this region travels thousands of miles to get here), energy demands (we pay 20 percent more for unleaded gas than elsewhere in the state), and the need to relocalize our resources (big federal benefactors and safety nets are a thing of the past)?
However, Shah doesn't hear the word "charity" mentioned much in these discussions about sustainability. Specifically, what can we do to help impoverished nations like Bangladesh or the countless Pacific island nations which are feeling the immediate effects of sea levels rising? Or the continent of Africa, which is already feeling the negative effects of global warming, with the Kilimanjaro glacier receding at an incredible rate and a constant bombardment of disease and malnutrition?
Shah believes that much of this hardship and collapse started with the Industrial Revolution and continues today with the profligate over-consumption of oil to make things nice for the West.
"For poor countries, every kilowatt is precious," says Shah. "Truly, Americans are kilowatt-illiterate, and that has a lot to do with the excessive and out-of-balance consumption of energy."
Shah points out that as global citizens, we need to understand that each American is equivalent to five Europeans in terms of the consumption of energy and other resources. Stack 5,000 Africans' resource needs against one American and you break even.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen asked about where she sees things going as oil prices are on the upswing, Shah resists doling out prognostications. "Many things can change in unpredictable ways," she says.
The 37-year-old Shah, who lives in Boston but who spent many years in Bangalore, India, where her extended family hailed from and where her parents practiced medicine, sees the lopsided way Americans suck the earth's resources dry as one of the key factors why we are living in this global crisis of denial, experiencing fluctuating prices for each barrel of crude, and investing in all those military incursions into countries like Iraq, Kurdistan, and Uzbekistan. The saber rattling against Syria and Iran adds to the unsettling climate of oil desperation.
In this time of evolution and continental shift deniers, Shah's book Crude is yet more evidence that we need to consider acting globally and thinking locally in order to globalize sustainable development.
"The story of oil is written on a time scale that humans can scarcely grasp, but it starts with something innocuous and seemingly peripheral: the slimy dregs at the bottom of the sea," she writes in the book's first lines, leading to a compelling and engrossing read that should be required reading for every politician and corporate head from Crawford, Texas, to No. 10 Downing Street.
What unfolds in Crude is a complicated journey through the history of oil, viewed through a lens reflecting oil's geopolitics and its plain ol' wildcat roots. Shah's created a compendium of things that Americans need to know in order to contextualize why oil is so important to our country's development and this world's shaky future.
Yet in interviews and during college talks, her message is so linked to humanity, and not just the 300 million Americans (representing just 5 percent of the world's population) who consume 30 percent of the world's fossil fuels. "These high prices -- we've already seen a tripling of oil prices in less than 10 years -- are already hurting the poor," she says. "How much environmental burden will it take to begin looking at alternative energy sources?"
Shah brings to the table more than just a message of oil and energy. In 1997, her edited collection, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe, was deemed "raw and powerful" for giving voice to 28 Asian-American activists, feminists, artists and writers who have made a distinct mark on feminism.
Shah also spent seven years as an editor with South End Press, where she worked with such steely intellects as Meena Alexander, Vandana Shiva and Winona LaDuke. In that tenure she wrote pieces for Ms. Magazine and Sojourner. This independent life as a freelance journalist for such publications as The Nation, Knight Ridder and the Progressive has framed her own defense of alternative presses. As she prepares to stump for her most recent book, The Body Hunters (see book review above), Shah points out: "We need to generate more than just sympathy for them. We need to buy their books . . at local bookstores. And subscribe to these websites."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & thers locally echo Shah's concern about the imbalance in global resource consumption between rich and poor nations and the inevitable fallout of global climate change.
Melissa Ahern, an economics professor at WSU, studies the renewed drive by China and the United States to build more coal-fired electrical plants and green lighting liquefied coal refineries.
"Look, one gallon of liquefied coal gives off 40 percent more carbon dioxide than a gallon of fossil fuel gasoline," Ahern says. "Carbon dioxide emissions are no trivial problem. In a decade, we will have entered a chaotic weather climate that will affect our agriculture systems in big ways."
Shah's not sure if society will shift to a more "energy-constrained way of living" or whether some "astounding new source of energy" is found.
Ahern fears that the "me first" attitude might prevail: "If we cut down on oil use, then that's oil for other countries to use . . . why not get it and consume it first?"
While this new surge in understanding climate change might be the best way to convince local authorities to address the energy problem, the fact is that no matter what, oil will be made again -- over tens of millions of years.
Crude's ending reads like a fabulous tale in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights: "Underfoot, the powerful black liquid will accumulate again. The shallow seas will rain down their sediments and the shifting plates will trap them in the rocky pores, perhaps more than once before the sun burns out in seven billion years."
On Monday, Nov. 20, Sonia Shah appears twice at SFCC's SUB -- at 11:30 am and at 7 pm. Free. Call 533-3698.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "U & lt;/span & nnecessary," "greedy" and "arrogant" might be some of the more tame epithets you'll use to describe Big Pharma's for-profit-at-any-price mentality after reading Sonia Shah's new book, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest People (New Press, 2006). Shah has woven a tale of lies, deception and inhumane disregard for the rights of men, women and children by the multi-billion-dollar-a-year drug racket.
To take just one example: Between 1957-60, experimental polio vaccines were tested on retarded children in New York and on more than 325,000 children in one African nation.
"If the history of human experimentation tells us anything, from the bloody vivisections of the first millennium to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study," Shah writes, "it is that the potential for abuse will fall heaviest on the poorest and most powerless among us."
Shah forces her readers to confront the fact that, on average, Americans buy more than 10 prescriptions each year, yet "less than one in 20 is willing to take part in the clinical trials that separate the dangerous drugs from the life-saving ones."
The scarcity of willing subjects in the United States and the West has spurred drug companies to look for warm bodies elsewhere -- and the competition for those bodies is fierce. It's clear from John Le Carre's The Constant Gardner -- and from his introduction here -- that getting Shah's book out there is at least one step toward keeping the drug companies in check. -- Paul K. Haeder