King Coal: Undercover Boss

“Mary,” he said, “did you ever read about ants in Africa?”

“No,” said she.

“They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary” (58).

In King Coal by Upton Sinclair, Hal Warner, the son of a rich coal tycoon, decides to go undercover to learn about the mining business from the workingman. Hal dons the name “Joe Smith” and gets a job with the General Fuel Company (GFC), the company of one of Hal’s college friends, Percy Harrigan’s father, so that his own employees will not recognize him. In order to get the job Hal has to swear that he does not belong to a union. Over time, Hal befriends the miners and begins to realize the corrupt business practices taking place. For example, the bosses show favoritism to certain workers because of their ethnicity, which causes racism to be rampant in the coal camp. Hal also laments about the difficulty of the work itself, after he changes positions from taking care of the mules to working directly in the mines:

If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the “iron maiden” and the “spiked collar.” Hal’s back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head—he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground…It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one’s fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that—any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas? (38)

Hal also realizes that the coal bosses are cheating the workers out of their commission. The bosses weigh each worker’s cart of coal and determine how much that worker will be paid. The bosses always underrepresent the amount of coal in each cart. Hal notes that the government has passed a law that allows for the workers to appoint a check weigh man to check the bosses’ estimate of the coal weight. Hal argues with one of the miners about whether unions are needed to enforce such laws:

“How do you feel about unions?”

Hal answered, “They’re one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that—there’s so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way.”

“What other way is there?” And Olson paused. “To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?”

“Not exactly; but mightn’t one appeal to the world in general—to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can’t think but
there’s some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics—”

“Politics?” cried Olson. “My God! How long have you been in this place?”

“Only a couple of months.”

“Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!”

“I can imagine, of course—”

“No, you can’t. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!”

“But if the men should take to voting together—”

“How can they take to voting together—when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can’t even get naturalisation papers, unless you’re a company man; they won’t register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are
you going to make a start, unless you have a union?”

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about “walking delegates,” all the dreadful consequences of “union domination.” He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. “We’ve had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining—the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?”

“Ah, now!” said Hal. “If you put it that way—if your movement is to have the law enforced—I’m with you!”

“But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it—it’s ‘down the canyon’ with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything—and why? They know we haven’t got the men behind us! It’s the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses—the union is the thing that counts!”

Hal found this an entirely new argument.

“People don’t realise that idea—that men have to be organised to get their legal rights” (41-42).

Hal will change his opinion about unions later in the novel, but first he tries to convince the bosses to the change their ways with the law. The miners choose Hal to be their check weigh man, however when Hal tries to work with the bosses, they try to bribe him into keeping his mouth shut. When it becomes clear that the Hal cannot be bought the marshal attempts to frame Hal for accepting a bribe so that the workers will no longer trust him. Though Hal outwits them, he is eventually put into the jail by the marshal. The marshal threatens Hal and tells him that he has two choices: he can admit to stealing money and be fired or he can go to jail for ten years. Hal lets the marshal in on the fact that he is not really a worker but the son of a wealthy businessman. The marshal immediately changes his tune and lets Hal go.

Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion in the mine. The explosion was caused by the dryness of the air, which is saturated with coal dust and allows for sparks with any sort of friction. These explosions can be prevented by the sprinkling of a special chemical around the mine, something that the bosses frequently neglect to do. After the explosion, the GFC seals the mine because it will suffocate the fire and leave much of the coal unburned, however, this seals up many of the workers as well. The bosses are only interested in saving the property, one of them even shouts: “Damn the man! save the Mules!” Hal tells this story to a reporter, who prints the story but claims that since his is from a poor-man’s newspaper that it will not prompt a rescue operation. Hal seeks out Percy Harrigan and tells him and his guests about the horrors of the mine:

“You’ll hardly be able to believe it; but nothing has been done to rescue these men. The criminal has nailed a cover of boards over the pit-mouth, and put tarpaulin over it—sealing up men and boys to die!”

There was a murmur of horror from the diners.

“I know, you can’t conceive such a thing. The reason is, there’s a fire in the mine; if the fan is set to working, the coal will burn. But at the same time, some of the passages could be got clear of smoke, and some of the men could be rescued. So it’s a question of property against lives; and the criminal has decided for the property. He proposes to wait a week, two weeks, until the fire has been smothered; then of course the men and boys will be dead” (137).

Percy agrees to tell his father’s employees to open the mine but they convince him that everything is already being done to do so and that Hal Warner is wrong. The workers organize a strike and a union to demand their rights from the bosses.

Hal pleads with the United Mine Workers to support the strike. They tell him that though they would love to be able to support the workers they do not have the ability to help them, since it would take resources away from strikes they are more invested in:

Don’t misunderstand us!” [the union boss] cried. “It’s heartbreaking—but it’s not in our power to help. We are charged with building up the union, and we know that if we supported everything that looked like a strike, we’d be bankrupt the first year. You can’t imagine how often this same thing happens—hardly a month we’re not called on to handle such a situation. (192)

King Coal is the quintessential novel about the early American coal industry. It exposes the seedy underbelly of big business at the turn of the twentieth century. It is similar to Oil! in that the book is extremely dense and full of important passages about corporate corruption, lack of political oversight, racism and the need for Sinclair’s socialism and unions. Coal was what moved the world before oil and still provides a significant amount of energy to power grids across the United States. While the ruthless and supposedly now, archaic practices of the GFC in the novel can no longer exist to the same degree today in the United States, they still exist around the world, and we support them through our consumerism.

I attended a lecture recently by Prismatic Ecologies author, Jeffrey Cohen on “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” His lecture inspired me to think about humanity’s fascination with not only coal but also oil and other energy minerals in a new way. Cohen one of the reasons for humanity’s fascination with stone especially in Medieval thought because it represents immortality. I wonder if it is this obsession with taking an immortal substance from the earth and using it as a life force is just a way for humans to try to rob the mineral of its immortality. This theory would both explain the life and energy equivalency that is so common in energy narratives and the hesitation of humans into looking into alternative energy sources.

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

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?

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.

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.

Oil!: How to Buy the Presidency of the United States

Oil! by Upton Sinclair is a classic example of how oil corrupts businessmen and government alike. Sinclair was inspired to write the novel following the Teapot Dome Scandal, which was when the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, accepted bribes to lease petroleum reserved for the navy to two private oil companies during the 1920s. The novel follows the life of James Arnold Ross Jr., or Bunny, who is the son of one of an upcoming oil tycoon. I wish that I could go into more detail in describing each of the key scenes in this novel, but I would end up with a post five times as long, thus I will only discuss the following two scenes: beginning of Ross Sr.’s corporate ruthlessness on a local level in Paradise, California, and Ross’s and Roscoe’s corporate ruthlessness on a national scale when they attempt (and eventually succeed) in buying the president of the United States.

Part 1

Ross discovers an “ocean of oil” underneath the property of the Watkins family in Paradise, a small town in Southern California. Ross then buys the Watkins’s property at only the land price rather than also paying them for the oil he found on their property. This is first of many immoralities committed by members of the oil industry throughout this novel. The Rosses integrate themselves into Paradise life and become good friends with the Watkinses and other members of the town. Bunny becomes good friends with Paul and Ruth Watkins, while Ross squares off with Old Man Watkins and his religious son Eli. As Bunny gets older he begins to realize that his father is not as much of a hero has he reveres him to be. Ross tends to cut corners and invest the money he makes in expansion rather than in making safer working conditions. As a result, one of Ross’s workers, Joe Gundha, has a fatal accident at the well, but as the narrator puts it: “the less you thought about a thing like that, the better for your enjoyment of the oil-game!” (153). Shortly thereafter the well in Paradise, catches fire and explodes, causing major damage to the environment around it:

They were never to know what did it; perhaps an electric spark, or the fire in the boiler, or a spark made by falling wreckage, or rocks blown out of the hole, striking on steel; anyhow, there was a tower of flame, and the most amazing spectacle— the burning oil would hit the ground, and bounce up, and explode, and leap again and fall again, and great red masses of flame would unfold, and burst, and yield black masses of smoke, and these in turn red. Mountains of smoke rose to the sky, and mountains of flame came seething down to the earth; every jet that struck the ground turned into a volcano, and rose again, higher than before; the whole mass, boiling and bursting, became a river of fire, a lava flood that went streaming down the valley, turning everything it touched into flame, then swallowing it up and hiding the flames in a cloud of smoke. The force of gravity took it down the valley, and the force of the wind swept it over the hill-side; it touched the bunk-house, and swallowed it in one gulp; it took the tool-house, everything that was wood; and when there came a puff of wind, driving the stream of oil and gas to one side, you saw the skeleton of the derrick, draped with fire! (160-161).

In order to put the fire out, Ross orders that the well be blown up, an extremely risky job for his workers: “the man who worked in that hole was risking his life— suppose the wind were to shift, even for a few seconds, and blow that mass of boiling oil over him! But the wind held strong and steady…they would go as close as they dared, before they set the dynamite” (162). What is worse, is that Ross does not even seem dazed by the well’s explosion, as if environmental disasters like these and dangerous labor practices are all happenstance:

[Ross:] “Why, boy, we got an ocean of oil down underneath here; and it’s all ours— not a soul can get near it but us! Are you a-frettin’ about this measly little well?”

[Bunny:] “But Dad, we worked so hard over it!”

Dad laughed again.

[Ross:] “Forget it, son! We’ll open it up again, or drill a new one in a jiffy. This was jist a little Christmas bonfire, to celebrate our bustin’ in among the big fellers!” (163- 164).

Part 2:

Many years later, Ross partners with the corrupt Vernon Roscoe, who convinces him that they should buy politicians to protect their oil prospects. At one point in the novel, Roscoe and Ross conspire to win the Republican nomination for president for Senator Harding. Roscoe and Ross believe that Harding is more likely to keep the government out of the oil industry and leave it to the private sector:

“Dad, you’re proposing to buy the presidency of the United States!”

“Well, that’s one way to say it. Another is that we’re protecting ourselves against rivals that want to put us out of business. If we don’t take care of politics, we’ll wake up after election and find we’re done for…”

“It’s such a dirty game, Dad!”

“I know, but it’s the only game there is. Of course, I can quit, and have enough to live on, but I don’t feel like being laid on the shelf, son.”

“Couldn’t we just run our own business, Dad?”

“There’s no such thing, son— they’re jist crowding you all the time. They block you at the refineries, they block you at the markets, they block you in the banks— I don’t tell you much about it, because it’s troubles, but there’s jist no place in the business world for the little feller any more. You think I’m a big feller because I got twenty million, and I think Verne is a big feller because he’s got fifty; but there’s Excelsior Pete— thirty or forty companies, all working as one— that’s close to a billion dollars you’re up against. And there’s Victor, three or four hundred million more, and all the banks and insurance company resources behind them— what chance have we independents got? Look at this slump in the price of gas right now— the newspapers tell you there’s a glut, but that’s all rot— what makes the glut, but the Big Five dumping onto the market to break the little fellers? Why, they’re jist wiping ’em off the slate!”

“But how can public officials prevent that?”

“There’s a thousand things that come up, son— we got to land the first wallop— right at the sound of the bell! How do we get pipe line right-o’-ways? How do we get terminal facilities? You saw how it was when we came into Paradise; would we ever ’a got this development if I hadn’t ’a paid Jake Coffey? Where would Verne and me be right now, if we didn’t sit down with him and go over the slate, and make sure the fellers he puts on it are right? And now— what’s the difference? Jist this, we got bigger, we’re playin’ the game on a national scale— that’s all. If Verne and me and Pete O’Reilly and Fred Orpan can get the tracts we got our eyes on, well, there’ll be the Big Six or Big Seven or Big Eight in the oil-game, that’s all— and you set this down for sure, son, we’ll be doin’ what the other fellers done, from the day that petroleum came into use, fifty years ago.”

“It’s all very well for a feller to go off in his study and figure out how the world ought to be; but that don’t make it that way, son. There has got to be oil, and we fellers that know how to get it out of the ground are the ones that are doing it. You listen to these Socialists and Bolshevikis, but my God, imagine if the government was to start buying oil-lands and developing them— there’d be more graft than all the wealth of America could pay for. I’m on the inside, where I can watch it, and I know that when you turn over anything to the government, you might jist as good bury it ten thousand miles deep in the earth. You talk about laws, but there’s economic laws, too, and government can’t stand against them, no more than anybody else. When government does fool things, then people find a way to get round it, and business men that do it are no more to blame than any other kind of men. This is an oil age, and when you try to shut oil off from production, it’s jist like you tried to dam Niagara falls.” (p. 299-300).

They are successful and sure enough Senator Harding becomes President Warren G. Harding. Roscoe and Ross become more successful than ever, and are able to continue to expand despite several strikes from their workforce, at least for a while. As I mentioned earlier, there are many more scenes in Oil! that make it one of the most important energy narratives to read. There are strikes, labor abuses, dirty politics, and dog-eat-dog business dealings, not to mention a manipulation of the masses through religion. In fact, Oil! is the only one of the narratives that I have written about so far that has all of my twelve energy narrative characteristics. If you have the time, I definitely recommend reading this novel, as it is both enlightening and an interesting read.

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

Futurama: Bender’s Game. Makeup for Dogs, That’s Where the Money is.

This extra long special comments on how the market encourages corrupt practices for harvesting energy resources and the lack of research put into alternative energy.

The episode begins with the Planet Express crew running out of fuel while they are out on a mission. Fortunately, they are able to use Nibbler’s dark matter poop as fuel to get them to a dark matter fuel station.

Can you believe the price of dark matter? It would be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winners’ sperm. –Leela

Later in the episode we find out that the reason that dark matter prices are so high is because of a dark matter shortage. However, it becomes obvious that Mom, who controls the world’s only dark matter mine, is controlling the supply of dark matter so that she can increase the price. (Consumers often complain that today’s oil companies might be controlling the oil supply to drive up gasoline prices.)

Professor Farnsworth tells the crew that it was he who discovered a way to turn dark matter into starship fuel when he worked for Mom many years ago:

Back in those days [dark matter] was just a worthless inert curiosity and I was smashing it in a particle accelerator in an ill-conceived attempt to create a more durable harpsichord wax. But as Deepaz Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason…and thus against all probabilities it happened. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that all dark matter in the universe is linked in the form of a single, non-local metaparticle…so in one instant I transformed all dark matter everywhere into a new crystalline form, making it into the most potent fuel since primitive man first ignited mastodon flatulence to heat his cave. –Professor Farnsworth

Mom stole the Professor’s work and fired him, but he made sure to keep a failsafe in case Mom ever went out of control:

Professor Farnsworth: “You see in the instant the energy crystal was created, there also came into being an opposite crystal made of pure anti-backwards energy…if ever the two crystals should meet their wave functions would collapse like Raymond Burr’s trampoline once again rendering all dark matter inert and useless as fuel.”

Hermes: “But then we’ll have no fuel.”

Farnsworth: “Ah, but once we free society from dependence on Mom’s dark matter, scientists will finally care enough to develop cleaner alternative fuels.”

Fry: “Scientists like you.”

Farnsworth: “No not me. I’m too busy developing makeup for dogs. That’s where the money is.”

Unfortunately, Farnsworth has forgotten where he hid the anti-backwards crystal, but he eventually discovers that his son is using it as a 12-sided die in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Farnsworth and the crew travel to dark matter mine to use the newly found crystal in to neutralize the dark matter. The crew discovers that Mom’s mine is farm—Mom has captured all of the Nibblonians (Nibbler’s species) and has placed them in cages so that she can harvest their poop. This farm gives Mom an unlimited source of dark matter. Mom’s enslavement of the Nibblonians is similar to the treatment of other labor forces in energy narratives. The Nibblonians possess an energy resource and are held against their will and forced to labor to give that energy resource to Mom, who is the stronger force in this narrative. Strangely, there is no theme of life for energy exchange here. It does appear that the labor is in anyway fatal to the Nibblonians. However, the Nibblonians do rebel when they have the chance to, which is characteristic of an energy narrative.

After a long and complicated series of events the Professor is finally able to bring the two crystals together and so render all of the world’s dark matter inert. Farnsworth and the crew use the Nibblonians to pull the Planet Express ship home, calling it “Nibbler Power”. Hopefully, following this narrative earth’s scientists develop forms of alternative energy as Farnsworth suggests they will, that is, if it is more lucrative than makeup for dogs.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet. We could revolutionize modern science. We could use it to fuel the Empire. Or start a war…

The Doctor and Rose travel into humanity’s future and discover a space station that is sitting on top of an “impossible planet”. The planet is orbiting a black hole without falling in. The team of scientists in the space station discovered that a power source deep inside the planet is causing the planet to counteract the black hole’s gravity, in addition to creating a gravity funnel, which allows for a spaceship to safely travel to and land on the planet’s surface without being pulled into the black hole. The scientists are drilling down into the planet to learn about the energy source so that they could potentially harvest the source and use it to power the Human Empire.

Chief Science Officer: “We could revolutionize modern science.”

Chief Security Officer: “We could use it to fuel the Empire.”

Doctor: “Or start a war…”


The humans in this narrative intentionally put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to research and potentially harvest a power source, because this power source is potentially worth their lives. Here again, is an example of the life and energy equivalency in energy narratives. In addition to putting themselves in danger, the scientists are using a race called the Ood to do the drilling. According to the scientists, the Ood presented themselves to the humans and asked to serve them saying that that is their desired purpose in life. While, we never see the crew members abuse the Ood, they tend to treat them like cattle as a result of their convenient racism.

Of course, the power source is something much more dangerous that it appears. The humans discover that it can never be harvested and only some of them make it off the planet with their lives, which is more than can be said for the Ood.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, religious element, political oppression, convenient racism.