By Roberta Silman
This is a brilliant book that comes at a propitious time in our country’s history.
Blowout by Rachel Maddow. Penguin Random House, Crown, 432 pages, $30.
There is only one reason to review a book that has jumped very quickly to the NY Times Bestseller list since its publication early in October and has stayed there ever since. Clearly people are reading it, probably the same people who listen to Maddow every weeknight on MSNBC at 9 pm. The reason is that this is a brilliant book that comes at a propitious time in our country’s history, when because of many factors, including the current impeachment inquiry, Americans of all backgrounds and political loyalties are trying to reassess what this country means to them and what kind of country they want to live in. Blowout will not only guide you as you search for a conclusion, but it will also give you the background you need to understand what is happening in a world that has had a widespread and deep-seated belief in the oil and gas industries.
So, this important book also serves as a warning in these troubled times.
It is constructed with great care and learning and breadth of vision. It has many pages of notes where Maddow gives her sources in the most scrupulous and professional way possible; it also has a valuable and complete index. An early review in Publishers Weekly called the book “scattershot” and a “hodge-podge.” What I would say to that anonymous reviewer is: This is a global story with many threads and names and stories, but it is far from scattershot. Read it again. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know.
For, although Rachel Maddow is not a lawyer, something she says quite often on her show, she is an able scholar who knows how to build an argument; she is also one of the smartest people in the public arena and has excellent credentials. She graduated from Stanford, was a Rhodes Scholar, and got a John Gardner Fellowship to Oxford, where she earned her MA and PhD from Lincoln College. She has had her own slot at MSNBC for 10 years, and from what I can gather, has matured in her delivery. I only started watching her three years ago, but I think it is fair to say that she is more measured now and surer of herself than when she first began. And although she sometimes repeats points for emphasis, she is not at all strident or annoying and, for someone with her abilities, is wonderfully modest and generous-spirited to her many well chosen guests, who seem to respect her as much as I do.
The essential question that Blowout, like many other books, addresses is: How did we get where we now are? By going at this question through the lens of the oil and gas industry, Maddow seems at first to be wandering all over the globe. But be patient and take it all in as you read about American aspirations — starting with the Rockefellers and ending with that enigmatic but certainly despicable character, Rex Tillerson — and see what they do to our dreams of prosperity. In order to tell her story, Maddow takes a thorough look at Equatorial Guinea and Putin and Russia and the craziness that characterizes our own state of Oklahoma.
An early chapter called “The Genie” focuses on a Texan named George P. Mitchell, born in Galveston in 1919 of Greek immigrants, who had “a hunch that there was a whole lot of natural gas not far beneath the surface of Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth.” He was right—and he was also right, after a lot of persistent research, that there was a way to extract natural gas from rock formations called “tight shale.” He is the man who figured out how to do that with what we now know as slickwater hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, “a breakthrough the oil and gas industry had been chasing for years . . . the genie in the bottle.” The process is explained in all its variations, described “as one of the most extraordinarily important, disruptive, technologically driven changes in the history of energy.”
And its possibilities were noted and acted on by players all over the world, names you might recognize, like Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorovsky, Igor Sechin, John Mack, Rex Tillerson, Ed Markey, BP, Dmitry Firtash, Rosneft; and names you might not, like Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake Energy, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue (of Equatorial Guinea), Austin Holland, Ken Silverstein, Dr. Terry Karl, Harold Hamm.
As Maddow weaves the many strands of this story it becomes increasingly clear that what was once perceived as a great boon has become a curse. About a third of the way through, she tells us that academics now recognize its adverse effects:
“Countries dependent on oil as their major resource for development are characterized by exceptionally poor governance and high corruption . . . often devastating economic, health and environmental consequences at the local level and high incidences of conflict and war. In sum, countries that depend on oil for their livelihood eventually become among the most economically troubled, the most authoritarian, and the most conflict-ridden in the world.”
When Maddow began this book a few years ago she had no idea how things would play out. But as she examines how it all went so abysmally wrong in Putin’s Russia, she lands us in the news of the week. She reminds us that:
this was the largest country on the face of the earth, with the only nuclear arsenal to match the United States of America. This was the country that gave us Tolstoy and Bolshoi and Pavlov. This was the country that launched the first man-made satellite into space. Launched the first man into space! And Russia, at the beginning of our century, also had the most impressive reserves of the most prized and remunerative commodities on earth—oil and natural gas. It was the sort of inheritance that, husbanded wisely and well, could have funded a border-to-border revival: education, infrastructure, health services, even fair elections. . . [Thus] Russia had the wherewithal to remake itself, again, into one of the most influential and powerful nations on the planet. A free, first-world Russia would have been a fearsome and worthy competitor in commercial and international affairs. . . .
Putin opted for a shorter and easier path, which solved two problems: it gave him permanent job security, and it saved Russia the pain in the butt of actually building itself a modern twenty-first century economy and government. Putin’s most fateful decision for his country was that oil and gas wouldn’t just be the profitable crown jewel in Russia’s diversified economic array; it would be Russia’s everything. And Putin would exercise almost complete control over it and use it in whatever way he saw fit.
Meticulously, Maddow shows us how Putin oversaw a tragedy of incompetence and corruption and greed that robbed the Russian people of their economic security and cultural heritage. Where did he go to look for other solutions to his problem rather than facing his own failure and wanting what doesn’t belong to him? To the rich oil fields of Ukraine, which led to the horrible and illegitimate war he is waging in that country. Maddow’s prescience is uncanny and also what makes her book so relevant.
However, as interesting as the Russian machinations, the maneuvering of Exxon Mobile, and the craziness of the playboy Obiang are, the thing that really broke my heart while reading Blowout is the story of what went on in our own country. Maddow relates that in his 2012 State of the Union address Barack Obama told a happy Congress: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.” Then she points out that the operative word was “safely.”
Remember all those earthquakes that ravaged Oklahoma? The same earthquakes that people in the industry were convinced had nothing to do with fracking? Well, they were wrong. And, as Maddow tells, “this [becomes] a case study in what happens when a powerful industry thoroughly captures a state government.”
It is a story that involves the powerful rich and their often sordid lives, extending into such unexpected places as their alma maters, their divorce settlements, their old friends, even their deaths. It is also the story of a state that cares more about money than its schools or its ability to shield its schoolchildren from tornadoes or to protect its civil servants or its health care. Conversely, it is the story of the hard work of government employees who put their heads down and apply their scientific abilities and backgrounds to get at the truth—employees whose only reward is to get a transfer, because even after their hard work has been acknowledged there is no real sense of triumph. It took years for the people of Oklahoma to hear their government admit “that earthquakes rocking the state are largely caused by the underground disposal of billions of barrels of wastewater from oil and gas wells.” But have things really changed? Hardly.
And what about the cows that died, the fields that turned to muck, the children who were developmentally affected, the number of patients who developed cancer from the problems posed by the disposal of wastewater? It is not a pretty yarn, one that should give us all pause, as state after state decides whether or not to allow fracking. Because, as Maddow points out, quoting Mike Cantrell of Oklahoma, in certain places in this country “money . . . most always trumps merit in politics,” reminding us “how much brute power the industry has over the people elected to keep it in check.” As we look around and ask what kind of a country we want to give to our grandchildren, we must also ask ourselves: How can we afford to turn a blind eye? So a few American oligarchs (yes, oligarchs) can add a few more billion to their portfolio? If that is the goal, then, surely, we have all gone crazy. And that is why the story of Oklahoma, laid out by Maddow, and its incredible and continuing corruption should be so devastating for all of us.
There is, however, a solution. As Maddow tells us:
It is easy to work up some proper indignation over the damage wrought by America’s biggest producers of oil and gas. They’ve managed to stunt developing countries on almost every continent and to prop up authoritarian thieves and killers . . . from Obiang to Putin. They’ve fouled oceans, gulfs, lakes, rivers and streams around the world. They’ve induced man-made earthquakes, strewn radioactive waste about the landscape; killed off family pets and farm animals, sickened schoolchildren; turned state governments into impotent little quisling servants that rip off their own people to make sure the industry gets everything it wants, and more. And that’s not even to consider the Big One: they are the chief drivers of the global climate catastrophe. While fueling that catastrophe—literally—they have also funded a decades-long campaign of denial that ensures the climate problem will get worse and that any solutions to it are seen as politically and economically impossible.
Yet at the end of that chapter Maddow says, in the matter-of-fact way that makes this book and her daily work so important:
The oil and gas industry . . . is wholly incapable of any real self-examination, or of policing or reforming itself. Might as well ask the lion to take up a plant-based diet. If we want the most powerful and consequential industry on our planet to operate safely, and rationally, and with actual accountability, well, make it. It’s not mission-to-Mars complicated either, but it works.
So here is the challenge. We, as a people, have to educate ourselves about the stakes and then, most important, we have to want change badly enough. For regulating oil and gas is intimately connected not only to climate change but also to the crucial problems of inequality that loom so large in our society today. As I read the last chapters of this book I was reminded of a conversation I had with my activist 16-year-old grandchild, Lily Gardner, who has taken leadership in the Sunrise Movement (look it up and Google her) which has made Climate Change its core principle for political change. “We have to act, Grandma,” she told me, “and we have to elect someone who understands why the young people of my generation are so angry at preceding generations, yours included. You weren’t paying enough attention. But now we must, this is life or death.”
I have never regretted bringing up children and grandchildren who can tell it like it is. My response was to say that I would send her Rachel’s splendid book.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.