Miami Herald

Monday, Sep 25, 2006

BUSINESS BOOKS

Author explores story behind our fossil-fuel addiction

Author Edwin Black looks to the past for solutions to our dependence on oil and its perilous political, social and economic consequences.

BY RICHARD PACHTER, rap@WordsOnWords.com

Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives. Edwin Black. St. Martin's Press. 396 pages. $27.95.

This is madness. We are fixed and focused on protecting holes in the ground half a world away because they contain the makings of fuel to power our cars, homes, businesses and nearly everything else. We live in fear of terrorists who want to destroy us because, among other things, they are offended by our defense of the people who run the countries with the holes in the ground.

We think we see a glimmer of hope: Ethanol fuel made from corn and hybrid vehicles that run on gasoline and electricity.

The future sure looks bright, doesn't it?

Not as bright as the past, and the future that might have been.

In this new book by the author of the shockingly revealing IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black writes that 120 years ago, America was on the verge of using electric batteries to power our cars, a project spearheaded by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Homes would also run on batteries. We would be wireless and relatively independent. Pollution from burning gas and oil, and its deleterious effects on human health, would have been largely unknown, and principles other than the protection of oil fields would guide most aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

What happened?

Black recounts how the forced scarcity and control of resources, abetted and legitimized by governing authorities--whether they ruled by divine right or constitutional decree--is as old as Robin Hood. In fact, the apocryphal outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor made his mischief in an English forest controlled by the monarchy for hundreds of years, when wood was the world's fuel. As coal superseded its use, the cartel known as "the Hostmen" controlled mining and distribution. Their hegemony extended to governments and transportation, and the price of food, goods and services was based on the resulting inflated energy costs.

Sound familiar?

As he threads through history, Black presents a meticulously researched case that leads to the inescapable conclusion that our present energy "crisis" is just the latest chapter of a story as old as civilization itself.

Why did electricity fail to take hold over a century ago, even backed by the revered Ford and Edison? Along with cartels and manufactured scarcity, corruption and collusion among financiers, speculators and government lackeys kept the power from the people. Moreover, these actions thwarted the development and implementation of new technologies. General Motors, in particular, played a pivotal role, according to Black, in subverting and destroying any technology that might undermine the primacy of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.

Black's book is compelling and even uplifting, despite its depressingly serious tone, as his copiously footnoted revelations may bode well for an inevitable emancipation from the tyranny of oil. But he's not a glib prose stylist, and the dense text may prove difficult for short attention spans and superficial reading. He's not an alarmist or conspiracy buff, either, and succeeds in maintaining an apolitical and objective distance from his material.

There's a lot of ground covered, including other shocking allegations of possibly criminal--and treasonous--activity by General Motors and others, but the most pressing reason to read Internal Combustion lies in the one-word answer Black offered when asked of his motivation for writing this book.

"Terrorism," he said.