Across the globe, oil is invoked as an agent of destiny. Oil will make you rich, oil will make you poor, oil will bring war, oil will deliver peace, oil will shape our world as much as the glaciers did in the Ice Age.
Oil is not a machine that can be disassembled or schematized for comprehension. It is a liquid. How do you coax secrets from a liquid? To know a person, you talk to him. To know a country, you visit it. To know a religion, you study sacred texts. Oil defies these norms of interrogation. It is a commodity that is extracted, refined, shipped, and poured into gas tanks with few people seeing it. It has no voice, body, army, or dogma of its own. It is invisible most of the time, but like gravity, it influences everything.
Over the course of eight years, I tried to solve this puzzle by talking with people who worked in the industry, visiting people who were touched by its operations, and taking a look not only at oil fields but the battlefields they have spawned. I met with oilmen in Houston, princes in Riyadh, lobbyists in Washington, roughnecks in Baku, warlords in the Niger Delta, leftists in Caracas, billionaires in Moscow, environmentalists in Quito, generals in Baghdad, traders in Manhattan, wildcatters in Midland, and diplomats in London. If you have conversations with people such as these, the topics you discuss include not just politics and economics but history, geology, geography, chemistry, engineering, physics, climatology, ecology, accounting, law, corruption, culture, psychology, anthropology, greed, envy, disease, ego, and fear. The world of oil is an intellectual as much as a physical space, and my years of journeying took me through a crude world that is as dark and amazing as the liquid that casts a spell on all of us.