La Brea Tar Pits once trapped prehistoric mammals. Today that killer has a chemical cousin in the Athabasca oil sands of Alberta, Canada—immense deposits of natural asphalt destined for upgrading to synthetic crude oil. If the harvesting of this natural asphalt continues unabated, we might find ourselves stuck in a muck of a different kind.
Humanity has used asphalt for thousands of years. This humble hydrocarbon may have glued the first arrowhead to the first shaft, but the changes wrought by this material are most dramatic since its emergence as pavement. Since the 1920s the automobile and blacktop have allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to experience the beauty of their continent from the Adirondacks to the Rockies and beyond, to Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway. Blacktop roads, runways, and parking lots constitute the central arteries of our environment, creating a distinct “political territory” and a “political economy of velocity.”
In Asphalt: A History Kenneth O’Reilly provides a history of this everyday substance. By tracing the history of asphalt—in both its natural and processed forms—from ancient times to the present, O’Reilly sets out to identify its importance within various contexts of human society and culture. Although O’Reilly argues that asphalt creates our environment, he believes it also eventually threatens it. Looking at its role in economics, politics, and global warming, O’Reilly explores asphalt’s contribution to the history, and future, of America and the world.
“It turns out that the story of asphalt is closely linked to the story of modernity—the smooth ride of our cars across the pavement ties into everything from the climate crisis to the racism inherent in tearing up our central cities for highways. A fascinating story that will reshape your sense of what binds the world together.”—Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“Kenneth O’Reilly’s wide-ranging story of seduction and threat is rich in iridescent detail and full of surprising twists.”—Graeme Wynn, past president of the American Society for Environmental History
“Full of forceful characters from Nebuchadnezzar to the Koch brothers and ranging from the Dead Sea’s asphalt seeps to Alberta’s oil sands, this carefully researched book tells the story of one of the key substances shaping our world.”—J. R. McNeill, past president of the American Historical Association
“Both a blessing and a curse, the progenitor of peace and the facilitator of violence, asphalt must be considered central to our understanding of modern history, and Kenneth O’Reilly convincingly explains why.”—Darren Dochuk, author of Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
“As the best histories do, Asphalt uses the past to change our view of the present and, hopefully, the possibilities for our future. Read this book, step outside, and see our world anew.”—Paul Bogard, author of The Ground Beneath Us
“O’Reilly chronicles how asphalt enabled suburbanization and urban decay, segregation, warfare, and environmental degradation. Brimming with a range of colorful characters, Asphalt takes us to the far corners of the world, in the process providing a fresh perspective on some of the central themes of modern global history.”—Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History