Oil could have developed differently. Absent some contingencies, the substance might have entered history as a moral category—at least, in Trinidad. The man who tipped the scales was the island’s most influential German immigrant. Born in Ulm in 1813, Conrad Friedrich Stollmeyer emigrated to the United States, where he became an outspoken abolitionist. To harness the human body at all, Stollmeyer came to believe, was deeply immoral. The utopian established what he called a “paradise without labor” opposite Trinidad, across the Gulf of Paria in Guinimita. On that Venezuelan coast, gullible working-class migrants from Britain died rapidly, and the colony collapsed in disaster. Stollmeyer remained in Port of Spain and gained a position as manager of an asphalt deposit in South Trinidad. He found a method to distill that heavy hydrocarbon into a light oil that would burn and generate heat. He had at last found a reliable substitute for human bodies and a means to the paradise without labor. Yet, as Stollmeyer observed freed slaves in Trinidad, his sentiments grew racist and flipped entirely: work, he now felt, did not enslave men but improved and invigorated them. His oil alleviated no toil in the plantations. Instead of sending it there, he sold it for illumination. As an emancipator, Stollmeyer failed because of he no longer wished to succeed. And petroleum failed too: it never attached itself to that signal Caribbean virtue, freedom. An interesting man then and now, Stollmeyer made oil boring.
The Myth of Inevitability
Oil comes packaged in a powerful, increasingly deadly jargon. Petroleum professionals speak of “upstream” and “downstream” as segments of an uninterruptable commodity chain. In so doing, they perpetuate a myth of oil’s inevitability. In Trinidad, this chapter traces that myth from its formation in debates on asphalt more than a century ago, through the twentieth-century development of graphic representations of oil reserves, to contemporary debates on gas scarcity and on proposed, unworkable solutions to climate change. In one way or another, all of these discourses have made choices hard to see—and powerful people apparently powerless. In talking to me, for example, petroleum geologists did not cover up a shameful secret, as one might imagine knowing perpetrators of harm to do. Climate change, they understood, was important, and they would deal with it. But they always found something more pressing: oil to be located. In large part, diagrams made this choice of priorities, and the evacuation of conscience, appear normal. Substances at depth rose—if not in the past, then now, and if not now, then later. In the lifetime of my informants, geologists had married this model of upward flows to the economic scenarios of supply and demand. Hydrocarbons, they had come to assume, left the ground and entered the global market in one natural, entirely ordinary progression. Even their efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually produced more oil—and more carbon emissions. It could not be otherwise, they assured me.
Lakeside, or the Petro-pastoral Sensibility
Oil’s natural quality shields it from a degree of interrogation and fear. The entire hydrocarbon fuel system generates no new substances. Human actions, in other words, only amplify petrolic activity that preceded industrial life. Of course, the vast strip mine amid Canada’s tar sands overruns boreal forest. Observers near and far criticize these oil fields as a form of atrocity. Less extreme cases attract less criticism than one might expect. In Texas, Oklahoma, and California, pump jacks sway like horses, a metal rodeo bucking up oil. To the resident, this oil land is home: a mosaic of water, soil, plants, animals, and a gooey mineral widely sought and contentedly consumed. Such an imaginary—which I call the petro-pastoral—shaped my entire ethnographic experience in Trinidad and Tobago. Inflected by the petro, Trinidad’s pastoralism applauds the oil well, rather than the village water well. Even when the well damages human health, ecosystems, and the climate, petro-pastoralism underwrites a surprising tolerance. Environmentalists—who defeated an aluminum smelter in 2010—neglected to criticize the oil and gas industry. This chapter traces the almost-but-not-quite antioil politics of various anti-industrial movements in Trinidad. Ultimately, their success promoted a love of place alongside disregard for the planet.
Climate Change and the Victim Slot
In between forays into the oil belt and conferences with oilmen, I conducted ethnography within Port of Spain’s climate intelligentsia. I apply this term to a loosely linked group of professionally successful men and women, born in Trinidad and belonging to African and Indian ethnicities. All had earned bachelor’s degrees, and many had studied further in the United States, Canada, or Britain. They knew the facts of climate change, and they cared enough to join public discussions about it. To these scientists, activists, policy makers, and energy specialists, I introduced myself as a fellow traveler: an environmental anthropologist writing a book on energy policy. Together, in 2010, we participated in a round of public consultations on the country’s first policy regarding climate change. The participants might have considered carbon emissions and means of reducing them. Instead, the consultations and the policy centered on impacts: environmental hazards, including even threats to oil’s infrastructure. In a fashion I had not anticipated, my informants positioned the petrostate of Trinidad and Tobago as simply a victim of climate change. With these informants, my conversations sometimes bordered on arguments, as instructive as they were contentious. No one broke off contact, and all seemed to consider our debate one worth having. I kept probing for an answer to the question: How and why did the climate intelligentsia frame the country as unequivocally innocent? Innocence, after all, amounts to a license to pollute. Fortunately, though, some Trinidadian public figures are beginning to reconsider hydrocarbons in ways both painful and humane.