a1 Department of History, Harvard University E-mail: [email protected]
Fears about the sustainability of oil-rich communities and hopes that petroleum would fuel financial, social, and moral renewal have accompanied the oil industry since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. With each successive ecological disaster caused by oil spills, debates over the industry's ecological sustainability sharpen. Discussions about the geological sustainability of the petroleum industry intensify when oil supplies tighten, and dissipate when they increase. Although concerns about the moral viability of communities dependent on oil have become radically unfamiliar since the late nineteenth century, these, too, were once central to debates about the effects of oil on human society. In the nineteenth century, the progress that oil promised to bring was to be measured not only in material wealth, but in the attainment of social harmony and the attenuation of political strife.
(Online publication March 03 2011)
* The author would like to thank James Bergman, David Blackbourn, Walter Johnson, Mary Lewis, Emma Rothschild, and Anna Whittington for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.