I regret having to say this at the outset. I suspect most readers browsing a bookstore's shelves will look at the title of this book and simply pass it by. And this is unfortunate for two reasons. First, because, like it or not, the production of oil is of utmost concern to the world and especially the United States and Europe. Second, the book itself, "Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil," by John Ghazvinian, is extremely well written, as well as vitally informative.
Anyone who keeps up on current events knows that the situation in the Middle East is growing increasingly unstable and violent. For a long time, this area has also been the most significant source of oil for the Western world. And the West, after all, literally runs on oil. We may not like our dependence on foreign oil, but we do have a very personal attachment to all the goodies that petroleum products bring into our lives. Short of a concerted conservation effort on the part of the public, or a relaxation on the part of committed environmentalists to their anti-drilling policies, or (heaven help us!) an extremely large tax on gasoline and other petro-products to discourage consumers, little will probably be or can be done to resolve the current crisis. So, for the most part, we will remain dependent on foreign oil for the foreseeable future.
Ghazvinian, in his book, takes our focus off of the Middle East and forces us to look at Africa as a source of oil. (Africa, in this context, is the area south of the Sahara Desert.) It has been known for a long time, according to Ghazvinian, that Africa is rich in oil. The problem has been the cost of tapping it and bringing it into production. In order to determine what is going on in Africa today regarding this quest for oil, Ghazvinian journeyed through twelve African countries interviewing all sorts of people from warlords to religious missionaries, from oil-workers to corporate executives, from petroleum scientists to just plain ordinary men and women. His journey is sometimes fraught with danger, often includes a touch of the humorous, is unusually enlightening, and thanks to Ghazvinian's eye for detail, always informative.
But why should we focus on Africa? And why now? Why the interest and why the hype that is now being displayed by some observers, including politicians as well as those in the oil industry itself? Ghazvinian provides this clue: "The answer has very little to do with geology. Africa's significance as an oil 'play' ... lies beyond the number of barrels that may or may not be buried under its cretaceous rock. Instead, what makes the African oil boom interesting to energy-security strategists in both Washington and Europe (and, increasingly, Beijing) is a series of serendipitous and unrelated factors that, together, tell a story of unfolding opportunity." The author then goes on to note numerous advantages, "attractive attributes," in favor of African oil, concluding that "African oil is cheaper, safer, and more accessible than its competitors, and there seems to be more of it every day."
So, Ghazvinian's adventure in Africa begins. And what an adventure it is! From Nigeria to Gabon, from the Republic of Congo to Angola, from Equatorial Guinea to the "maybe-paradise" of São Tomé and Principe (where the author couldn't wait to try the chocolate), the encounters that Ghazvinian relates, both "official" and personal, are what true adventure stories are made of. If a work of nonfiction can be described as a "page-turner," this one certainly qualifies. It was difficult to put it aside, once I started reading his book, for the more mundane tasks of cooking dinner, cleaning the house, or checking my e-mail. I don't say that about many works of nonfiction.
Ghazvinian, however, has a knack for writing excellent prose. Although an academic himself -- he has a doctorate in history from Oxford and is currently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania -- the text flows easily across the page and the writing is not the least bit "academic." I want to stress that this is not a book merely for the specialist in oil policy, or one of interest only to academics who study politics, history, geography, or allied disciplines, or that it is written for the scholarly class (whatever that is!). The ordinary reader will find "Untapped" immensely readable and its subject-matter extremely important, particularly since the future of the oil industry and its ability to deliver the "black gold" that is so vital to modern life, is going to have a great impact on the average person's pocketbook, as well as quality of life.
While most Westerners, I suspect, are not all that familiar with the geography of the continent of Africa, the book has a double-sided map of the African regions through which Ghazvinian traveled printed on the inside front and back covers of the book to aid the reader in following the journey. There is also "A Note on Sources and Suggested Further Reading" section for those readers who want to pursue the subject further. A helpful "Index" of topics is also provided. All in all, this is an important book and I highly recommend it to all those who want to keep up with what's going on in the world today and especially those concerned with the future of the American economy and of where the "oil crisis" may be heading.