The Story of Oil

Sonia Shah: Beat me to the History Channel

For many folks, showing up on the 6 o’clock news or having your mug on the cover of Time or Newsweek is the epitome of “making it.” For a strange breed of geeks like me, however, it’s being interviewed on History Channel.

When I’m working at home, it + a few other, similar channels are the “background music” to my daily office chores and it makes up perhaps 75% of my overall TV viewing. Thus, while I don’t know who won last year’s American Idol, thanks to History, I can probably tell you more than you wanted to know about key ingredients in modern ag economics. Oh yes, I’m a hoot at parties.

So, imagine the surprise when they aired a 2 hour documentary titled Crude this past Sunday and interviewed a young-ish desi woman by the name of Sonia Shah for her commentary. And, to make my budding jealously worse, she wasn’t merely interviewed but actually wrote a book chunks of the program were based on

If there’s anyone who can air a program about the history of a lowly Carbon atom and make it interesting, the History Channel is the place. Crude eloquently traces the history and chemistry of Crude Oil extraction and went down a series of interesting side roads. Shah’s journal describes her involvement in the movie –

A few years ago, a documentary fillmmaker (sic) from the ABC in Sydney (that’s the Australian public television network) spent a day with me in Boston, talking about oil politics. His film, which he dubbed “Crude” (after kindly discussing it with me), came out in Australia a few years ago, and won a slew of awards. It has some amazing footage in it, the least of which are some clips from that day in Boston with me. (A film crew followed me around at the grocery store while I pretended to shop. Slightly embarassing.)

This Sunday, the film airs on the History Channel here in the US….

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p>A hefty amount of airtime traces the biogenic origins of Oil along with modern processes into which oil is refined and incorporated into a variety of shapes and forms. Thankfully, the show avoids too much geopolitical sermonizing and instead focuses on consumer impact and science. Shah gets an opportunity to deliver a money quote from her book -

“Newborn babies,” observes author Sonia Shah, “slide from their mothers into petro-plastic-gloved hands, are swaddled in petro-polyester blankets, and are hurried off to be warmed by oil-burning heaters.” The modern world is drenched in oil…

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p>It’s unlikely that Shah & I would see eye to eye on how to respond to Global Warming (I’m a bit more Bjorn Lomborg / Copenhagen; I’m more likely to frame issues in terms of “unequal production” rather than “unequal consumption” and so on). BUT, I have to give her major props for publishing this and several other apparently well received works.

And what did the History Channel have to say about Sonia’s desi-ness? Nothing whatsoever. Just the way it should be. Still, Sonia’s biography tells a childhood tale that should be familar to many SM readers and perhaps planted a seed for her future –

As an American-born child, sent to stay with relatives in India every summer, all of this was shocking, and fascinating. Back at home, wads of gossamer-thin, perfumed paper tissue, imprinted with lacy designs, were used to cushion each tiny smear of snot as it swirled down the commode’s shiny porcelain. Here, people cleared their nasal passages directly into a stinking gutter. All of this-the poverty, the disease, the disparity-must be related, I thought. For a seven-year-old, every mysterious thing in the world is secretly connected. Growing up meant figuring out how.

Unfortunately, Crude has come and gone and I didn’t get the advance notice to post a heads up. Luckily, however, the History channel generally lives up to its name and re-airs programming pretty regularly. So, keep your eyes peeled and if you or I see it again, post a shout-out for others.

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31 thoughts on “The Story of Oil

  1. So, imagine the surprise when they aired a 2 hour documentary titled Crude this past Sunday and interviewed a young-ish desi woman by the name of Sonia Shah for her commentary

    What? The Hitler Channel had a program about somebody without a short toothbrush mustache?

    “Newborn babies,” observes author Sonia Shah, “slide from their mothers into petro-plastic-gloved hands, are swaddled in petro-polyester blankets, and are hurried off to be warmed by oil-burning heaters.”

    It was true then, and it is true now. “I just want to say one word for you, son. Just one word. Plastics!”

  2. Rahul’s right. History channel use to be sweet. They use to air these documentaries on explorers, emperors, kings; and more. Now they just air WWI and WWII stuff. The History International Channel is slowly becoming like that too.

    But every know and then you know something sweet will pop up, like in this case. Here’s another cool video on crude oil. But you know, you’ve seen one you’ve seen em all. “Everything around us is soaked in oil. We are running out soon. It’s bad for the planet. We can attribute the sudden surge in world population in the past four decades to oil (because of oil’s use in agriculture). So on and so on…”

  3. My gym in LA always had the History Channel on in the locker room and all the guys would be slow to dress because they were interested. My new gym in Texas is always on FoxNews. Everyone just tunes out.

  4. The modern world is drenched in oil…

    I know an aunty whose hair is rather modern and wordly.

    …the locker room and all the guys would be slow to dress because they were interested.

    Abhi, are you trying your hand at Mills & Boon for Men?

  5. History channel has been inexplicably showing Dirty Harry recently. What does that got to do with History?

  6. It looks like the book design was done by India Amos? Go down to the copyright page and read where it says book design. They also have a blow up of the front cover. Not sure if that answers it.

  7. khoofia,

    Cover Image: Ron Watts/Corbis, photo author: Cameron Laird.

    Yes, I have nothing better to do at the moment.

  8. Cover Image: Ron Watts/Corbis, photo author: Cameron Laird.

    Thanks Jangali_Janwar, for looking that up.

  9. Her book was reviewed in Le Monde a month ago. French is I are mutually incomprehensible but I noticed that they wrote about her being an American of Indian origin and I was surprised because a great many people I meet (here in France and elsewhere) don’t know that such a thing exists. It’s actually worse than that. If you were to clarify that you are, in fact, American, they take no pains to conceal the fact that they think you are trying to pass off for something else.

    There are lots of unflattering stereotype about Americans so maybe it is just as well.

  10. American of Indian origin … a great many people I meet (here in France and elsewhere) don’t know that such a thing exists. It’s actually worse than that. If you were to clarify that you are, in fact, American, they take no pains to conceal the fact that they think you are trying to pass off for something else.

    American based desis seem to confuse Europeans a bit. Once some Swedes asked me if I have any kids – I told them I wasn’t even married. That response amused them to no end because in their mind marriage and having kids doesn’t have anything to do with each other (probably rightly so). But that amusement devolved soon into them analyzing me for 15 minutes about whether my response was rooted in my “tradition bound” Indian-self or “conservatively religious” American-self. Two stereotypes I care very little for.

  11. American based desis seem to confuse Europeans a bit.

    Looks like an interesting show. I too tire of the History channel’s never-ending obsession with WWI & WWII.

    American-based desis throw off Europeans completely. The Swedes/French were amazed that I lived in the US for 25+ years and had been to McDonalds twice.

  12. What? The Hitler Channel had a program about somebody without a short toothbrush mustache?

    Rahul, Hitler was Crude. So see, there’s a tie-in.

    There are lots of unflattering stereotype about Americans so maybe it is just as well.

    It is well. You’re better off telling the frogs that you’re Latin American. They’ll be nicer to you. (once a year I get a visit from some French friends and I always have to ask that we not have the “fat American” conversation yet again.)

  13. You’re better off telling the frogs is that really necessary when you’re talking about avoiding stereotypes?!!

  14. You’re better off telling the frogs is that really necessary when you’re talking about avoiding stereotypes?!!

    Thank you, good Dr, for calling me out, you’ve cured me of my hypocrisy(so American of me!).

  15. “Newborn babies … slide from their mothers into petro-plastic-gloved hands, are swaddled in petro-polyester blankets, and are hurried off to be warmed by oil-burning heaters.”

    Nope, no thanks at all to the gestational obstetricians whatsoever. We’re just chopped liver, as usual.

  16. Nope, no thanks at all to the gestational obstetricians whatsoever. We’re just chopped liver, as usual.

    Wow! Am I witnessing a doctor with a slight shortage of self-esteem?? What’s the world coming to?

  17. American based desis seem to confuse Europeans a bit.

    not just american even australian based desis confuse both old and new europe. A mate who is of sri lankan origin had a very hard time getting through the border between Hungary and the Czech Republic on an Australian passport. The guard did not believe that a nonwhite person could be Australian.

  18. Vinod–thanks for an excellent post. Apart from her writing a book on a fascinating subject in general (oil), with an all-too-doubly-entendre’d title, Shah’s writing style seems catchy. To combine oil with the ordinary.. no easy task!

  19. Didn’t she also write a book about pharmaceutical companies and medical experimentation on the third world poor?

  20. as a desi singaporean, i’ve often been told that i “don’t look singaporean” ;-) Leaves me wondering what to say without being rude…

  21. Oh My God. So as excited as Vinod was to see a desi interview on the History Channel (I’m a super History Channel nerd afficionado myself), the only other channel that could make me as excited to see brown representation is the Food Network. I am watching the Iron Chef: America right now – it’s Battle: Daal (Lentils) and one of the judges is a fellow brown lady – Monisha Bhardwaj. I have to admit – I felt a little something jumbly in my tummy when I saw a brown lady judging on one of my favorite shows on the Food Network. (I do with they still showed the original Iron Chef as well though.)

  22. Harminder (#25), I can totally relate :-) . “But I knew someone else who was from Malaysia, and they looked nothing like you!” Right, because all us natives must surely look alike, yes?

  23. Harminder #25,

    Is Singapore as racist and repressive as its reputation? Are Desis restricted in their place to live? Too many cannot live in an apartment complex. Does the government routinely taxes/fines people for political speech? Is there no freedom of assembly? Are political publications are highly regulated?

  24. The version of Crude aired on the History Channel is re-versioned for a US audience. This means that some of the original interviews with International scientists were replaced with those of US scientists. This doesn’t diminish the film’s validity but it does present a different program than the original.

    For those interested in the original Australian version, and more, the website to visit is: http://www.abc.net.au/science/crude.