Stanford University
A Global Atlas of Oil

Oil and its complexities are central to many of today’s pressing concerns: armed conflict, environmental degradation, climate change, and the structure of global capitalism. It is the most global of all commodities and at the same time a strategic commodity essential for war making on all scales. Oil is the dominant global source of energy still and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is central not only to industrial and agricultural production, and transportation, but also to consumption. In some form, oil is present in virtually all of our mass produced and more mundane devices, including plastic, medicine, and cosmetics. Oil is everywhere. And yet, the scale of its significance and especially its profound global impact on politics, economies, and the environment remains mystified. 

We propose to compile a “Global Atlas of Oil” that will highlight the historic development of the petroleum industry and its consequences, addressing large-scale historical questions. Drawing on digital tools and with a commitment to thinking historically and spatially, we argue that an atlas of oil’s global rise and influence will help bring more sharply into view just how vast its impact has been historically and remains today. 

We will focus on the following themes:

1) The rise of oil (as a way to introduce readers to scale, to oil’s global emergence, and to establish a baseline).

2) Oil and empire – early to mid-20th century – with attention to location, production, labor, and technologies and networks of transportation.

3) The post-World War II petroleum order.

4) Oil politics – addressing a range of issues from the rise of autocratic oil states to oil nationalism in the 1970s. 

5) Oil and violence: civil conflict, wars, and revolutionary politics in oil “states” and modern empires. Mapping US wars in the Middle East to oil wars in Africa during the Cold War and today. 

6) Oil and global capitalism – “markets,” labor, race, how oil is entangled in other networks of production and transportation.

7) Environment – from local pollution to climate change over the long 20th century. 

Spatial History