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?

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.