Ship Breaker: Is Environmentalism a Rich Man’s Problem?

In Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi pens the future of a fossil fuel dependent world. Carbon-based fuel has all but run out and humans live on the scraps of old technology. The novel focuses on teenage Nailer, a “ship breaker” on Bright Sands Beach, located somewhere in the former Gulf of Mexico. Ship breakers work for a company called Lawson and Carlson, to scavenge ships that have gotten lost in the gulf. They strip it of metal, technology and most importantly, oil. Ship breakers have work tattoos on their faces that designate what crew they are a part of. Nailer is part of “light crew” and so he strips copper, aluminum and other valuable metals out of the hard to reach places on the ships. The ship breaker crews are highly competitive. For most Bright Sands natives, shipbreaking and begging are the only alternatives to starving, but mostly, everybody just wants to pull a “lucky strike.” Lucky Strike was a ship breaker who stumbled onto a secret pocket of oil. He was able to sell it bucket by bucket until he was rich enough to retire.

One day, while Nailer is on the job he falls into an oil pocket in an old tanker and nearly drowns:

Why can’t I swim? He was a good swimmer. Had never worried about drowning in the ocean, even in heavy surf. But now he kept sinking. His hand tangled in something solid— the copper wire. He grabbed for it, hoping it was still connected to the ducts above. It slithered through his fingers, slick and slimy. Oil! Nailer fought off panic. It was impossible to swim in oil. It just swallowed you like quicksand (24).

This passage is a metaphor for the world’s dependency on oil. Oil seems safe and familiar but one day our dependency on it is going to swallow us like quicksand. Nailer realizes the irony of his situation, he has found a secret oil pocket like Lucky Strike but instead of saving his life, it is going to kill him: “It was a joke, really. Lucky Strike had found an oil pocket on a ship and bought his way free. Nailer had found one and it was going to kill him. I’m going to drown in goddamn money. Nailer almost laughed at the thought” (25-26).

Nailer calls for help from inside the tanker but the only one who hears him is his rival, Sloth. Sloth ultimately decides that the oil is worth more to her than Nailer’s life and she leaves him for dead:

But he knew the calculations she was making, her clever mind working the angles, sensing the great pool of wealth, the secret stash that she might pillage later, if Fates and the Rust Saint worked in her favor. He wanted to scream at her, to grab her and drag her down. Teach her what it felt like to die sucking oil (28).

Nailer manages to escape and Sloth is then kicked out of the crew. Energy depends the price of life and since it cannot have Nailer’s, Sloth must pay for it with hers.

Nailer discovers and rescues a wealthy heiress from a shipwreck. He later learns that Nita is the daughter of one of the major energy tycoons. Nita, who Nailer calls Lucky Girl, is fleeing from her father’s corrupt business partner, Pyce, so that he cannot use him for ransom. Pyce wants to develop more carbon-based fuel from tar sands (oil sands). The process of extracting the fuel from oil sands (called bitumen) generates roughly 15 percent more greenhouse gases per barrel of crude oil than conventional oil extraction. Since the government in this novel has production caps on greenhouse gas emissions because of the now warmer climate, it is illegal for Pyce to complete this project. We are having this same debate in the United States right now about the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would ship crude oil from oil sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s tar sands development and refining. A way to make burnable fuel, a crude oil replacement. The valuation has gone up, because of carbon production limits. Pyce has been refining tar sands in our northern holdings and secretly using Patel clippers to ship it over the pole to China.”

“Sounds like a Lucky Strike to me,” Nailer said. “Like falling into a pool of oil and already having a buyer set up. Shouldn’t your dad just take a cut and let this Pyce run with it?”

Nita stared at him in shock. She opened her mouth. Closed it, then opened it again. Closed it, clearly flummoxed.

“It’s black market fuel,” Tool rumbled. “Banned by convention, if not in fact. The only thing that would be more profitable is shipping half-men, but that of course is legal. And this isn’t at all. Is it, Lucky Girl?”

Nita nodded unwillingly.

“Pyce is avoiding carbon taxation because of territory disputes in the Arctic, and then when it goes to China, it’s easy to sell it untraceably. It’s risky, and it’s illegal, and my father found out about it. He was going to force Pyce out of the family, but Pyce moved against him first.”

“Billions in Chinese red cash,” Nailer said. “It’s worth that much?”

She nodded.

“Your father’s crazy, then. He should’ve done the business.”

Nita looked at him with disgust.

“Don’t we already have enough drowned cities? Enough people dying from drought? My family is a clean company. Just because a market exists doesn’t mean we have to serve it.”

Nailer laughed.

“You trying to tell me you blood buyers got some kind of clean conscience? Like making some petrol is different than buying our blood and rust out on the wrecks for your recycling?”

“It is!”

“It’s all money in the end. And you’re worth a lot more of it than I thought.”

He looked at her speculatively.

“Good thing you didn’t tell me this before I burned the boat with my dad.”

He shook his head. “I might have let him sell you after all. Your uncle Pyce would have paid a fortune.”

Nita smiled uncertainly.

“You’re serious?”

Nailer wasn’t sure how he was feeling.

“It’s a lot of damn money,” he said. “The only reason you think you’ve got morals is because you don’t need money the way regular people do.”

He forced down a feeling of despair over a choice that was made and couldn’t be gone back on. You want to be like Sloth? he asked himself. Do anything just to make a little more cash? Sloth had been both a traitor and a fool, but Nailer couldn’t help thinking the Fates had handed him the biggest Lucky Strike in the world and he’d thrown it away (194).

Nailer is in a unique situation to think about the environment. He is poor, worked-to-death and starving. A little extra money for him might be the difference between life and death. He thinks that it is easy for Nita to take the high ground about the environment because she has money, which is fair point about many environmentalists, including myself during the course of this project. However, Nailer seems to understand where Nita is coming from and tends to agree that the world would be better without more “city-killer hurricanes.”

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi’s other novel, The Wind-up Girl, is set in post climate-change, 23rd century Thailand. Much of Thailand, including Bangkok, relies on levees and dams to remain above sea level. It appears that countries increased their research into biotechnology to engineer crops and animals and even humans that would survive in the new climate. Therefore, biotech corporations now control most of the food and energy production, since it appears that the oil supply has long-since run out and new technologies like GMO algae-enhanced, kink-spring engines are used for power. These corporations are referred to as “calorie companies,” and this starving world’s thinking has shifted to measure even basic human movements in calories and joules. This novel’s energy theme is much more subtle than Ship Breaker’s but definitely worth a read.

Tell me what you think!

Is environmentalism a rich man’s problem? Are there more pressing concerns? What are some of the ways you have come up with to go green on a budget? Should Congress support the Keystone XL pipeline?

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Ain’t My Fault by Gulf Aid All Stars and Balls in Your Mouth by Jimmy Fallon and Eddie Vedder

Mos Def and Ben Jaffe were inspired to rewrite the lyrics to “Ain’t My Fault,” a song written by Smokey Johnson and Wardell Quezergue, after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in New Orleans. Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, recorded the song to raise money for the charity “Gulf Aid.”

The lyrics are written from the perspective of a New Orleans resident who is listening to various companies in the oil industry trying to shift the blame for the spill from themselves: “awwwwwww, it ain’t my fault.” The narrator recognizes that someone is definitely to blame but what is more important is that he or she is confused about how to deal with the spill in his or her daily life.

 

IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Mama no don’t ya say

ah

oil and water don’t mix

petroleum don’t go (go) with no fish

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

BP….big pimpin

Big pile of BAD presses

boiling point

billionaire point pressure

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Say Man:

Who pushed the marshes back?

It’s where the hurricane shelter

and the gardens at

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Sing…

from the government’s coast

to the broke levee wall

somptin goin on

and it’s somebody fault…I said

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

Oh no, oh no

“IT AIN’T MY FAULT”

Energy narrative characteristics found in this song: environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, convenient racism.

Balls in Your Mouth

The narrative structure of this song is very simple: the narrator is telling his or her audience not to swim in the ocean because there are tar balls in it as the result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The point behind the simple structure and the silly title is that the fact that there are tar balls in the ocean is utterly ridiculous. Granted, the last thing I want to do is call an accident that called 11 people “ridiculous” when it is in fact “tragic,” but drilling that deep without taking proper safety precautions was an unnecessary and dangerous risk. Now, it may be that I think that because I am looking at the issue in hindsight, like the argument in my most recent post on South Park, but I think that tar balls are a poetic (and deeply unfortunate) consequence to a ridiculous problem.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this song: environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities.

South Park: Coon and Friends 2. What could possibly be worse than a fire that kills 14 people.

In this episode, the kids of South Park, Colorado don their superhero costumes and become “Coon and Friends” to protect their town from crime. Meanwhile, BP drills into the ocean outside of New Orleans (in a boat that reads “BP: We Care”), and causes a massive oil spill. As fighters of crime, Coon and Friends vows to assist the Gulf with their troubles. However, another superhero, Captain Hindsight, is already working to critique BP on what they could have done to avoid the spill:

Captain Hindsight: “You see where that rig is drilling?”

People in New Orleans: “Yes”

Captain Hindsight: “It’s in too deep of water. They shouldn’t have drilled in that deep of water because now they can’t get machines deep enough to fix the spill.”

People of New Orleans: “Ah-ha!, yes, yes.”

Captain Hindsight: “Now if it’s a valve that ruptured then what they should have down is installed a backup valve in case that broke.”

People of New Orleans: “I believe they did install a backup safety valve, Captain Hindsight.”

Captain Hindsight: “Hmm. Right. Then they should have had a backup safety valve to that backup safety valve!”

People of New Orleans: “My god he’s right!”

Captain Hindsight: “My work here is done!

Meanwhile, BP CEO, Tony Hayward, shoots an advertisement where he says the phrase “we’re sorry” over and over again.

 

However, BP, now Dependable Petroleum (DP), drills further into the ocean in an attempt to stop the spill. However, by drilling deeper they open a gateway to another dimension and monsters escape from the hole and start terrorizing the earth.  A television reporter states: “The oil company stated that it knew a portal to another dimension was there but didn’t think drilling into it would prove problematic. Now hundreds of creatures from another dimension are spilling out into our reality and wreaking havoc.” Hayward shoots another “we’re sorry” advertisement and then determines that if DP drills on the moon it will change its gravitational pull on the Earth and calm the ocean, which will allow them to place a cap on both the spill and the dimension gateway. Of course, drilling on the moon causes them to release the dark lord, Cthulhu, and as a result, causes 3000 years of darkness on earth.

 

This episode is an obvious parody of the aftermath of the explosion of BP Deepwater Horizon. BP is characterized as a bunch of careless fools who perform risky tasks without researching what their consequences might be. However, the writers are also attempting to show that the BP hatred might be a little overwrought. The introduction of the character of Captain Hindsight is meant to show that while we realize all of BP’s mistakes now, it is because we are viewing them in retrospect. The writers are also attempting to show that maybe the media is making a bigger deal out of the spill than it actually is, after all it’s not like they released the dark lord Cthulhu. The writers of South Park are famous for taking this middle ground. They parody both sides and often do not come to an obvious conclusion about what is right.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities.

The Newsroom: Trying to Toss a Hat on a Fire Hose

The first episode of the TV series, The Newsroom, follows the story of the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, which took place on April 20, 2010. The episode describes the event from the perspective of journalists who put out a national news show. The journalists discover information about the explosion and the spill and relay that information to their audience .

Senior producer Jim Harper reads an associated press (AP) alert that there has been an explosion on a BP oil rig about 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. The AP reporter claimed that coastguard evacuated 7 people all of them critically injured, and they are searching for 11 confirmed missing, and that flames from the rig had reached 150 feet in the air. Journalist, Neal Sampat reads the report and determines that there might be a bigger problem than the missing crew members. He claims that since the rig was drilling at 18,000 feet below sea level that the explosion could have caused a massive oil spill and that fixing it would be like “trying to toss a hat on a fire hose.”

Sampat and Harper experience some resistance from outgoing executive producer, Don Keefer, but are able to convince their bosses, incoming executive producer, Mackenzie McHale and news anchor Will McAvoy, that the story is worth pursuing. Harper receives two phone calls from anonymous sources, one at BP and one at Halliburton, a company that was used to supply the cement mix for the oil rig. Harper’s source from BP claims that BP does not know how to cap the well, and Harper’s source from Halliburton said that Halliburton performed tests on the cement mix and the tests showed that it was going to fail.

Neal: “After an explosion like that, the first thing that’s supposed to happen is the underwater blowout prevent should automatically close.”

Jim: “The flames are still 150 feet high, so that obviously didn’t happen. Now when they get the fire out, they’re gonna send a submersible ROV down there to turn the preventer on manually, but my source says ‘at that depth with that much pressure, it has to be the mechanics that failed and not the electronics.’ In other words, trying it manually isn’t gonna work either.”

Neal: “So they’re gonna have to build relief wells and that’s gonna take months.”

Jim: “Months of oil spilling into the Gulf at a rate of 4.2 million gallons a day.”

Don: “And just for the record, the Gulf of Mexico contains 643 quadrillion gallons of water. I think you may be overreacting.”

Jim: “You are dramatically underreacting.”

Don: “I’m the only one who isn’t dramatically doing anything.”

Jim: “In four days, it’ll have spilled as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. It’s a week before the oil reaches Louisiana shores, three days if the wind shifts.”

Mac: “Is the wind gonna shift?”

Jim: “Only if Louisiana’s luck stays exactly the same.”

Don warns Jim that if he takes Halliburton’s name through the muck and is incorrect, that they will destroy his career and his livelihood: “If you’re wrong about Halliburton, that’s the first line of your bio forever: ‘Isn’t this the same guy who said that Halliburton caused that spill?’ And, by the way, you publicly accuse them of negligent homicide and you’re wrong, they will take you to court. They will win and they will end up owning AWM. They will have their own record label. They will have theme parks.”

Despite all of this McAvoy agrees to not only run the story but to make that their primary focus for the show. The team continues to investigate during the broadcast to make sure that they cover every angle. Associate producer Margaret Jordan discovers that there was a lack of government oversight from the Minerals Management Service in inspecting the well.

Maggie: “It’s the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and they have 56 inspectors overseeing 3,500 production facilities that operate 35,591 wells in the Gulf region. That’s according to the Interior Department, not Wikipedia.”

Mac: “56 inspectors for 35,000 wells?”

Jim: “It gets better.”

Maggie: “Inspections for drilling rigs are required monthly, but Deepwater Horizon was only inspected nine times in 2009 and six times in 2008. The last inspection was done 20 days ago by Eric Neal, who was sent by himself even though he had only just started his training as a government inspector of drilling rigs.”

 

The point of this energy narrative is to expose how when corporations and government work together that serious negative consequences occur for the weaker force, in this case the environment. These two corporations were trying to make money and save money and in so doing they cut corners and pursued dangerous options. The point of government is to ensure a citizen’s right to safety and therefore regulate the unsafe practices of businesses, but since oil is needed by both the business world and the government, the government shirked its duty.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities.

Syriana: See No Evil

Syriana is secretly an expose of the evil behind the oil industry that is posing as a thriller. It is based on former CIA officer, Robert Baer’s memoirs See No Evil. Syriana is a fast-paced, blink-and-your-miss-major-plot-details, horror film minus the demons, chainsaws and red corn syrup. The film is so dense that I am going to do something a little uncouth for this post and direct you to a Wikipedia article and a really cool web that shows the links between the characters. Normally when I write these posts, I summarize the parts of the narrative that relate to energy. I realized that there is almost no part of Syriana that is not crucial to the movie’s attempt at exposing the seedy underbelly of energy corporations and the federal government. If I summarized the entire film than this post would be extremely long. I do promise, however, to keep an eye on the Wikipedia article and write a summary of my own if it ever drops in quality.

The three major energy narrative characteristics that are found in this movie are corporate ruthlessness, political oppression and the life and energy equivalency.

Corporate Ruthlessness:

Connex looses the rights to the al-Subaai oil fields to the Chinese so they broker an illegal merger with Killen so that they can have Killen’s drilling rights in Kazakhstan. They hire a shady law firm to clear it up and no one is the wiser.

 

We see from the Wasim storyline that at the very least the Connex workers working on at the al-Subaai oil fields have no job security. When Connex loses the rights to drill, the workers are not only let go but also immediately kicked out of their homes. The two workers in this storyline are persuaded into becoming terrorists after taking shelter at a religious school.

Political Oppression:

Prince Nasir is responsible for Connex losing their oil rights in his Kingdom. He is going against his father’s pro-American policies, because he believes that they are holding the emirate’s economy back. He wants to use the profits from the oil industry to diversify the economy and introduce democratic reforms. Normally these words are bread and butter to U.S. politicians, except when it means that their energy interests are threatened. The American government puts pressure on the Emir and he inherits Nasir’s pro-American younger brother instead. The following conversation between Nasir and Woodman helps illustrate the difficult situation that many leaders of resource rich nations find themselves in when dealing with the energy needs of the western world:

Nasir: “My cousins aren’t bright enough to be anything more than finger puppets and my brother has faith only in his own cunning. What do you suppose they are up to, my brother and these American lawyers? Tell me. What are they thinking?”

Woodman: “What are they thinking? They’re thinking that it’s running out. It’s running out. And 90 percent of what’s left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression: Versailles, Suez, 1973, Gulf War I, Gulf War II. This is a fight to the death. So what are they thinking? Great. They’re thinking ‘keep playing. Keep buying yourself new toys. Keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room. But don’t invest in your infrastructure. Don’t build a real economy.’ So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry. And you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history.”

Nasir: “I studied at Oxford. I have a Ph.D. from Georgetown. I want to create a parliament. I want to give women the right to vote. I want an independent judiciary. I want to start a petroleum exchange in the Middle East, cut the speculators out of the business. Why are the major oil exchanges in London and New York, anyway? I’ll put all of our energy up for competitive bidding. I’ll run pipe through Iran to Europe, like you proposed. I’ll ship to China. Anything that achieves efficiency and maximizes profit. Profit, which I will then use to rebuild my country.”

Woodman: “Great. That’s exactly what you should do.”

Nasir: “Exactly. Except your president rings my father and says ‘I’ve got unemployment in Texas, Kansas, Washington state.’ One phone call later, we’re stealing out of our social programs in order to buy overpriced airplanes. We owed the Americans but we’ve repaid that debt. I accepted a Chinese bid, the highest bid. And suddenly, I’m a terrorist. I’m a godless communist. Dean Whiting, who represents not only these aggrieved royals and my brother but also Connex Oil. They’ve been pressuring my father to invalidate the Chinese contract. But they underestimate him. This is about his legacy to his people.

Life = Energy:

The CIA realizes that making his brother emir is not enough to keep Nasir quiet so they have him assassinated, and as a result, Connex gets their oil interests back. The price of energy is Nasir’s life (and his family’s lives too). The CIA knows this and they are willing to pay that price. They even lie to their assassin to get him to take the job.

All of this corruption is taking place and the characters know it. Many of them do not care and those that do, know that they are helpless against it, so they stay quiet. There is no nomadic element to this movie. There are a few examples of insurrection: Barnes’s attempt to warn Nasir and the attack on the tanker. These attempts are unsuccessful, however, and most of the characters simply accept the abuses they suffer.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, insurrection.

Argo

Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. The motivation behind the November 4th raid on the United States embassy in Tehran is explained in the opening scene:

 

This is the Persian Empire, known today as Iran. For 2,500 years this land was ruled by a series of kings, known as shahs. In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democrat, as prime minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people. But in 1953, the U.S. and Great Britain engineered a coup d’état that deposed Mosaddegh and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The young Shah was known for opulence and excess. His wife was rumored to bathe in milk while the Shah had his lunches flown in by Concorde from Paris.  The people starved. The Shah kept power through his ruthless internal police: the SAVAK. An era of torture and fear began. He then began a campaign to westernize Iran, enraging a mostly traditional Shiite population. In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew the Shah. The exiled cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned to rule Iran. It descended into score-settling, death squads and chaos. Dying of cancer, the Shah was given asylum in the U.S.. The Iranian people took to the streets outside the U.S. embassy, demanding that the Shah be returned, tried and hanged.

During the raid, most of the embassy staff are taken hostage, however, six United States Americans, escaped to the home of the Canadian ambassador. The rest of the movie follows an undercover operation by the CIA to return these six to the United States.

The political leaders of the United States realize that installing a corrupt leader in Iran has put them in a tricky political situation:

Bates: “Those f**ks hit us; we can’t hit them back?”

Malick: “Mosaddegh, we did it to them first.”

Bates: “Think the Soviets would put up with this s***? They’d invade.”

Malick: “What did you expect? We helped the guy torture and de-ball an entire population.”

The Carter administration realizes that they cannot get their people back without releasing the Shah, which they cannot do because they will lose the trust of all of their other puppet leaders.

Butler: “No release until we expel the Shah.”

Titterton: “Well put him on a plan then, f**k him.”

Chief of Staff Jordan: “He’s half dead and he’s in chemo.”

Butler: “We took him in. He’s ours now.”

Titterton: “Great so we’ll take in any pr*** as long as he’s got cancer?”

Chief of Staff Jordan: “No, just the pr***s on our side. So all of our other pr***s on their pr*** thrones know when they get thrown out on a rail, they won’t get their f**king spleens taken out by some camel vet in Sinai.”

The hostages were released on January 20th 1981 after 444 days in captivity. The film illustrates an insurrection against political oppression, two common characteristics of an energy narrative, it just so happens that this narrative happens to be based in fact.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, insurrection.

Cities of Salt: the Myth of the Positive Energy Narrative

“How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” (Cities of Salt 134).

Like Oil!, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, is an example of the classic corporate ruthlessness story. A group of Americans, likely backed by the government, drill for oil in the 1930s Persian Gulf. They displace and abuse the groups of people there as well as destroy the environment. Cities of Salt begins with the Americans discovering oil in a desert oasis, called Wadi al-Uyoun. The Americans that come to the Wadi al-Uyoun are referred to with religious imagery. The people there wonder if they are jinn because they are not Muslims yet they speak Arabic, and do not appear to want the water that is found in the wadi. The emir tries to convince the people that the Americans are not jinn but rather their saviors with a more positive form of religious imagery: “Don’t be afraid. We want you to help them in every possible way. They have come from the ends of the earth to help us.”

When the Americans start drilling for oil in the wadi, the machines are described with religious imagery as well: “Lights that shone from them were like shooting stars” (98). Miteb al-Hathal, an elder in the community, is vehemently against the Americans taking up residence in the wadi. He sees the machines as a sign of the apocalypse: “Deep inside him he knew, when the thunder stopped, that the world had ended” (98). The people of Wadi al-Uyoun have similar feelings to Miteb al-Hathal as they “looked on with fearful eyes in utter silence, not knowing when the gates of Hell would open up and swallow everything.” Later in the novel, the Arabs still refer to the Americans using religious imagery. They name the pleasure cruise that arrives in Harran (I will explain more about Harran later) “King Solomon’s ship” and “Satan’s ship” because of the American’s wild displays of pleasure. The workers consistently claim that the Americans have some sort of supernatural powers: “The Americans have come between our men and their wives; they’ve made fools of us and tomorrow they’ll use their witchcraft to turn men into women and women into men! They’ll conjure us into monkeys! God damn them and the day they came here! God help us—I seek refuge in God fro Satan the accursed” (531). Munif’s use of religious imagery is reminiscent of the positive energy narratives found in religious myths. By making the Americans into devils, he is asserting, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there are no positive energy narratives anymore. There will never be another god or angel delivering life force in the form of an energy resource to a group of people suffering from sickness, death and other demons. Instead, the people will suffer at the hands of the new evil, greed.

After the Americans start drilling, the wadi ceases to be a paradise and can no longer sustain the community that lives there: “After destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth again” (106). As a result, many of the residents of the Wadi al-Uyoun follow the Americans to their new place of interest, Harran, in hopes of finding work. The Americans mock the workers in Harran because they do not know what they are doing. The workers also have to use dangerous machines that they do not know how to operate. Many of them consider leaving but as soon as they receive their first paycheck, they change their minds: “No one had ever dreamed of getting that much money, and none had ever possessed that amount before” (185). The Americans soon segregate Harran into two sections, American Harran and Arab Harran, thereby forcing the Arabic workers into the more rundown part of the city. In addition, the Americans divide the workers into castes. For example, they send the troublemakers to “Station 4,” which is notoriously dirty and difficult work, to segregate them from the other workers.

Mizban, an Arabic worker, dies as a result of poor working conditions, yet the Company refuses to pay: “The company stubbornly refused to pay any payment, because the ‘law is the law, and rules are rules.’ Their excuse was always that responsibility for the workers’ welfare had not been transferred to the company until after Mizban’s death, “and before that date the company did not recognize or assume any rights or liabilities’ (366). Mizban’s death and later, the death of Hajam, causes the workers to have their first thoughts of rebellion: “When workers talked about the armed Bedouin who were to avenge Hajam and Mizban—for they were all sure that they would come today or the next day—they lowered their voices and agreed that they would prepare a place for Ibn Hathal and his Bedouin to stay; they would be hidden in places that no one would discover, and Ibn Rashed would never find out” (384). One of the workers, Daham, starts carrying a gun around, and later fire is set to the American camp. The Americans believe that it is Miteb al-Hathal who is responsible but the novel is never clear. It is possible that a disgruntled worker is really to blame.

The Americans start work on a pipeline from Wadi al-Uyoun to Harran. They find the heat in the desert unbearable. In this instance, we see nature fighting back, since had they not destroyed the wadi, they would have had some shelter from the heat:

The Americans were in the same nervous, quarrelsome frenzy that had possessed them during the dredging of the harbor, with one difference: this time they were in the desert, in the midst of Hell itself. They were used to going back to their compound ever day, to its swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, but here, now, they were like animals surrounded by raging fire (505).

The workers start playing pranks on the now vulnerable Americans. One worker captures a jackal and lets it loose in the American camp. He sings a afterward about nature will exact retribution on the Americans for their crimes: “O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/ Wherever you try to flee,/ The sun is above and the scorpions below./ The lizards mangle your balls/ And the foxes feast on your asses,/ O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/Where will you flee, O eyes of blue?”

When the Americans finish their pipeline they let go many of the workers and as a result a strike breaks out. The company doesn’t believe they are at fault: “We’re convinced that the matter goes beyond the firing of the twenty-three workers. The company has laid off workers in the past and there was no reaction at all. Not only that, the company subsequently rehired them, or some of them. But this time our preliminary assessments indicate the existence of other reasons, of acts of incitement that did not obtain in previous instances. We believe that these causes, these acts have nothing to do with the company.” The workers band together and feel more and more empowered as they do so:

They felt afraid, but still dared to say things they would never have said had they not been so consumed with sorrow and anger. Why did they have to live like this, while the Americans lived so differently? Why were they barred from going near an American house, even from looking at the swimming pool or standing for a moment in the shade of one of their trees? Why did they Americans shout at them, telling them to move, to leave the place immediately, expelling them like dogs? Juma never hesitated to leash out with his whip when he found the workers in “restricted areas” (595).

The company asks their Arabic security guards to put an end to the strike, without violence, at least at first, they said. However, violence is exactly what happens. First, two men are killed, but this seems to inspire the workers to charge despite the gunfire and overwhelm the company’s security force. The workers take the day and the company is forced to reinstate them: “His Highness ordered the reinstatement of all workers to the company, and the company has acceded to his wishes. His Highness also ordered for the formation of a committee to study and identify the responsibility for the recent events.” Munif ends the novel on a positive note, despite the fact that the Americans still remain in the Gulf. I tend to agree with Amitav Ghosh’s theory about the ending, that Munif wanted to give the workers the positive ending that he knew they would never receive in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.