Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Eskimo and the Oil Man" is Excellent

So last night I started reading The Eskimo and The Oil Man, and it's excellent -- definitely in the hard-to-put-down category. Bob Reiss's style is very engaging, smoothly combining exposition and narration, which is even more impressive given the complexities of the topic.

Reiss tells the story of climate change and oil exploration in the Arctic, beginning just after the 2010 oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His two main characters are the mayor of North Slope, Alaska--an Iñupiat Eskimo whose town is heavily dependent on oil revenue--and an executive from Shell Oil who wants to secure drilling opportunities in the Arctic in the face of opposition from environmental groups, the White House, and the mayor's conflicts between his town's funding and his concern for preserving his backyard and the culture of his people.

Here's an excerpt:
As [Mayor] Itta left his house, his concerns were shared by most residents of the region. Subsistence hunting was not only the basis of Iñupiat culture but it provided the food that people ate. In the last census 61 percent of residents who worked full time and 89 percent of the unemployed reported getting over half their nourishment from hunting and fishing.

What do do? Fight Shell or not? The whale hunter--in his political capacity--was one of the most influential rural mayors in the United States. At his orders borough lawyers had challenged Shell in court in 2007, charging the federal agency responsible for permitting any offshore drilling with failing to conduct underlying science, failing to show whether the drill plan would do hard to the areas offshore.

"Too much, too fast, too soon," Itta had said then, and the court had agreed with him.

A Shell spokesman said that year, "That we failed I lay directly at the feet of Edward Itta."

But now Shall had changed the plan--made it smaller, and promised to stay away longer during hunting weeks--so Itta had refused to join national environmental groups--and a few Eskimo ones--still trying to bar Shell in court. His problem was not that he wished to halt all oil development. It was far trickier. It as a microcosm of energy issues facing the world.
What's so attractive about Reiss's presentation is that he presents the story via his characters, which adds real zing to his writing. And these characters are fully dimensional, pushed and pulled by many forces, struggling to do what's best for them, and what's best for the world from their points of view, fully cognizant of all the many issues at play, modern men with modern responsibilities.

I'm finding it a very attractive account of an issue that, too often, to too many of us, appears black-and-white, as if its a Yankees/Red Sox game and we're all calling up talk radio as Pete-from-Dorchester or Louie-from-the Bronx. In every paragraph Reiss makes it clear that it's not like that at all.

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