Over a Barrel: Breaking Big Oil’s Grip on Our Future
by Raymond J. Learsy
(New York: Encounter Books, 2007), 250p.

Reviewed by James W. Marquart, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Dallas, Director of the Crime and Justice Studies Program

In psychological terms, an addiction is the compulsive use of a substance despite potentially adverse consequences with a need for an increased amount of the substance over time. But the United States’ predicament concerning our reliance on oil and other fossil fuels is more than just an addiction. It is a form of national assisted suicide—both environmental and financial.

In Over a Barrel, Raymond J. Learsy explains in clear and concise language why and how the United States’ became addicted to oil—or in his words “the devil’s excrement”—and how the geopolitics of oil production makes dependence on it a danger to us all.

The book’s strongest chapter is on the social, economic, and political effects of oil discoveries on the major oil producing countries. Indeed an inverse relationship exists between oil production and oil reserves on the one hand, and the low rates of political participation and the slow evolution of a civil society on the other. Many countries that mine oil are time bombs waiting for revolution or the birth of the next bin Laden and places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf Kingdoms are some of the most repressive regimes in the world. As the author explained, sitting atop vast pools of oil for many nations has translated into oceans of profit for a few at the top, vast corruption and repression for most. After reading this book one wonders whether or not Wahhabism was underwritten by the Saudi extended family to forestall modernity, as the opiate of the masses, while the Oxford educated, Armani-clad princes filled their bank accounts and enjoyed Western culture.

The 20th century in these desert kingdoms was enjoyed by a few while the many became entrenched in feudal times. The sad fact is that the United States is an enabler in so much as that we are the world’s primary oil addict. We import a lot of oil from these pitiful regimes. Today a barrel of oil is over $100 and our political leaders offer no solutions. The usual theater of the absurd unfolded recently in Congress as bold politicians hauled oil company executives in front of hearings and raked them over the coals. The executives lectured us about supply and demand, and the economic “markets” affecting oil prices. Anyone with common sense knows the oil commodity market is rigged like a dice game at a county fair.

It is a national disgrace that we have sold our collective soul to unstable and rotten regimes. Worse yet is the absolute lack of leadership and political will to break this addiction on the part of policymakers in Washington. Like many Americans, I cringe every time I fill my gas tank because I know that some portion of the profits from a gallon of gas will finance some extremist groups who spend countless hours plotting to kill Americans.

Over the Barrel, however, is more than just a scathing critique on the world’s addiction to oil. Learsy’s final chapter proposes several recommendations about curbing our appetite for foreign oil, including adopting a realistic nuclear power program, busting OPEC (which should have done after the first Gulf War), taxing big oil’s profits, and investing in bio-fuels and other green measures. The author’s policy recommendations benefit our climate, our economy, and most importantly our national security. Like most recommendations, however, they require the “government” to make the first move, a recipe for politics, more hearings, and more of the status quo.

The parallel between our addiction to “all things oil” and illicit drugs (along with drug cartels and narco-terrorism”) is compelling. Several decades ago Nancy Reagan offered the simple dictum of “just say no to drugs.” Simple but true and one could also say the same thing to the gas pump—“just use less.” As individuals, we have little control over national-level energy policy. We can at least retaliate by using less. We do have personal control over our appetite for food, drugs and the “devil’s excrement.”

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Einstein’s words can be applied to our energy policy and only we ordinary citizens can move the situation towards sanity.