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Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

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Review of Untapped, by John Ghazvinian (Hardcover, 2007)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that Ghazvinian has a gift for writing. In a market swamped with books that exemplify poor writing, that's saying a lot. But it's not the only reason to read this book.

Oil is one of those topics that is frequently abused with misdirection, misinformation, and misconceptions. So, I grudgingly agreed to read and review this book. After reading it, I though of a new twist on an old adage. Don't judge a book by its topic. I have to give this book high marks, all the way around.

One of the common misconceptions about oil is that most of it is in the Middle East and Central America. The truth is that Africa has vast amounts of oil that we are only beginning to discover. Ghazvinian provides some startling statistics on the offshore reserves alone.

Another common misconception is that any country with large oil reserves will also have great wealth. Actually, oil can--and often does--impoverish a country. Ghazvinian explains why, and provides detailed accounts of how this actually happened in case after case. The devastating effects of mismanagement following the discovery of oil, are unfortunately, the lead story of every country on the west coast of Africa.

The United States now imports most of its oil. Most people do not realize that if Americans made a few minor adjustments, the United States could be a net exporter of oil. Instead, Americans drive gas guzzlers and take unnecessary trips. This boosts the international demand for oil, and that demand is now escalating even faster as China and India ramp up their economies.

Even fewer people realize that the cost of extracting the oil to meet the demand goes far beyond the cost of equipment and oil company salaries. Everybody in an "oil rich" nation wants the "free ride" that purportedly comes with having oil in one's backyard. Tiny-minded "leaders" of oil-rich nations engage in what economists call "rent-seeking behavior," which leads to a distorted and counterproductive attitude toward managing every aspect of the nation's economy and resources. This results in a great deal of tension and illicit profiteering, plus the rise of a parasite class that makes its host quite ill. The abuses, pain, and suffering don't have to happen, but they do.

Ghazvinian doesn't propose any solutions, which is something I commend him on. He doesn't pretend to be an expert. Instead, he describes exactly what he sees going on and digs a bit deeper to give the reader the important background information so that understanding and proper perspective are possible.

No help from politicians

The extraction, transportation, and distribution of oil has become highly politicized. Unfortunately, this means politicians are heavily involved and that is never a good thing. For example, consider the USA. We have 435 Congressmen drawing nearly $200,000 a year each in salaries. They are completely out of touch with 90% of the people they "represent," partly because of the enormous income differential.

They constantly run for election, which means leaves zero time to do anything of value. They have no time to learn about the issues, much less "represent" the people who suffer from the bone-headed legislation they produce. They propose "solutions" based on polls of uninformed people or based on what financial supporters "suggest."

Their "energy policy" proposals range from the absurd to the merely pointless. If there is evidence that our politicians serve any purpose other than to hand out money to special interest groups, it's extremely well-hidden. An informed electorate, in theory, could begin to hold politicians accountable and actually have representation in the legislature.

Yet, expecting a sensible oil policy from Congress is both naive and hopeless. After all, this is the same bunch that have been tinkering with the federal tax code for nearly a century and still have an unconscionable mess. Americans are saddled with a 65,000 page code and one of the most hated and corrupt government agencies ever to exist.

Progress on the oil problem, especially with demand skyrocketing due to China and India, has to begin with ordinary Americans. Just as one example, consider that 80% of  American cars have a fuel-wasting automatic transmission while in Europe only 20% of cars do. Americans can easily cut oil consumption by half.

Where we're headed

Perhaps if most Americans understood where oil comes from and the true costs involved, we might take it upon ourselves to be responsible about how we use it. PerhapsGhazvinian's book will help bring about this change.

Ghazvinian doesn't make any predictions. But he provides such a clear picture of the situation in Africa that the reader can be fairly confident things are not going to improve any time soon. With demand on a steep upward trajectory, there's no doubt that more oil will be extracted from Africa. Most if it will be extracted offshore, which will help mitigate some of the negatives. But given that the institutional and cultural deficiencies responsible for the present state of misery show no signs of correction, we can't expect things to just work out as if by magic.

I think it's great any time someone introduces accurate information into a highly charged environment of disinformation and opportunism. That's exactly what Ghazvinian has done with this factual and well-written book. People who read this book will be better off for having done so.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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