Oil: A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth
Matthew Yeomans, New Press, 2005
Anyone who reads enough has run across plenty of examples, from their own experience, of book reviews that, when you read the book, show unmistakable evidence that the book reviewers never bothered to read any much of the book they reviewed. Writing for a living, a less than middle-class living for most all writers, that’s a shortcut that is understandable, if not excusable. I never had much truck with it, as it really is the acme of sloppy, lazy unprofessionalism, but I confess now right up front that I’m writing a review of this book without having bothered to read it. I’ve read maybe a half hour of it and I’ve had all I can take of its stupidity and I refuse to inflict any more of it on myself and please, please, dear readers, do yourselves a favor and don’t read it.
Why is this book so bad? Blurbs from The Nation, CSM, Wired, Newsday, The Washington Post, even the Sunday Times all praise it highly. WP‘s reviewer wrote: “…well-researched, informative, one of the best on the subject.” Sorry, WP, it isn’t. What it is is a piece of magazine-level hackwork, with magazine-writer-level scientific expertise and technical knowledge combined with modern journalistic story construction cliches wrapped up with a scientifically and economically impossible happy ending. Heavily seasoned, of course, with uncritical acceptance of mainstream sociopolitical explanations of our actions at home and abroad.
I used to read a lot more magazines than I now do. I don’t read many now, and it isn’t because I’ve gotten a whole lot smarter or stupider. Magazines used to have more in them and their writers wrote at a higher level. Decisions have been made at the senior corporate level to reduce content amount and level over the last twenty years, mostly because content costs money. There’s also some element of contempt from the publishers towards their reading public in doing this, that they don’t think it is worth the candle to produce technical quality because they think we don’t deserve the effort and expense that costs. And there’s also even more of a desire to write to advertisers than there used to be–Popular Science thirty years ago would have explanatory articles on topics like synthetic fuels and nowadays I challenge anyone to turn up an article of theirs that isn’t a product tout. Wired, which probably has the highest average IQ demographic in mass-market publishing, is the worst example of this–product tout articles dressed in cutting-edge and trendy snotty attitudes. The editorial smugness there exceeds by far the upscale fashion magazines’ and is even more grating. The question is whether or not these attitudes of incompetence and contempt have infected the writers themselves. From the looks of this book, they have, and worse, have infected an otherwise upstanding publishing house.
Here’s the book in a nutshell. There are three parts to it–historical/technical explanation which is interspersed with political reportage from some oil crisis area in some far corner of the globe. Final part of the book is the author’s solution–the hydrogen economy. The technical/historical parts are pretty good if you have a sixth-grader’s understanding of the history or technology. If you know more, the oversimplifications and factual errors will leave you groaning. The political reportage suffers from a mainstreamitis, which may be caused by lack of depth of knowledge or by a lack of imagination. The leading cause of mainstreamitis in mainstream journalism is, however, the well-trained self-censorship that all mainstream journalists have deeply ingrained in their makeup. McDonald’s insists, for reasons of profit maximization, that each and every single store’s food is absolutely identical in taste and appearance. McDonald’s insists that they have the scientific studies to prove that this is right and they are right and hell, they probably are. Mainstream journalism’s sociopolitical coverage is run to these same principles, for the same reasons. It all has to be the same everywhere all the time or you’d have upset customers like McDonald’s would. While no doubt Mr. Yeomans considers himself sharp and forward thinking he is purely and absolutely unimaginatively mainstream in his political analysis.
Whether this is due to lack of knowledge, lack of imagination, or self-censoring mainstreamitis I cannot say, and I don’t care to read his book closely enough to find out. To his credit, he isn’t as offensively smug about it the way Wired is.
I’m not going to spend much time kicking his solution–the hydrogen economy–except to say that there aren’t any solutions to the problems of creating hydrogen cheaply enough, and moving and storing it effectively, for it to ever work. Basic science in disassociating water, basic engineering and physics in moving and storing that most pesky and uncooperative hydrogen gas. That’s it in an inescapable nutshell.
Here’s the books to read on energy if you really want to learn about it. They have a strongly technical bent, which is right and necessary because energy is first and foremost about science and engineering. First is Janet Ramage’s Energy Futures. After that, start reading Vaclav Smil’s books. Smil is a little dry and technical but anyone who is the first non-American to get an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for excellence in science writing can safely be said to know his stuff. There’s some quite good books on the operational side of the oil industry itself from the PennWell press in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ordinary (or maybe not so ordinary) working stiffs in the oil industry write them and all the ones I’ve read are real good. Beyond that you are on your own, but if you don’t read these books, first, you are going to be the victim of the technical and scientific ignorance and incompetence of second-rate wordsmiths in the media, like Matthew Yeomans. I suggest that anyone with a concern about the biggest issue in our future immediately get to work reading them.