Enforcing scarcity: Oil, violence, and the making of the market

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53 Scopus citations


Oil has always been at the center of discussions of resource scarcity. Over the last decade of volatile and often rising oil prices, a vast "peak oil" literature has emerged citing the geological finitude of petroleum as a harbinger of an era of catastrophic energy scarcity. Many analysts focused on the geopolitics of oil also presume that natural oil scarcity is the primary driver of global conflict and "resource wars." In contrast, I follow geographical discussions of the social production of scarcity, to problematize oil scarcity as not a geological fact but as a social relationship mediated by capitalist commodity relations. Specifically, I focus on the role of violence in socially producing the scarcity necessary for the oil market to function. I first discuss the broader historical and legal problems of "overproduction" in the United States. I then examine the 1931 declaration of "martial law" in the oil fields of east Texas and Oklahoma in a moment of lax depression-era demand, glut, and collapsing oil prices. I argue that violently imposing oil scarcity was not merely sectoral but a broader project of stabilizing the chaotic oil market in accordance with the reorganization of capitalism during the 1930s. Such stabilization as critical for the emergence of an oil-powered Fordism in the postwar United States responsible for the intractable patterns of oil demand so vexing to energy policymakers today. I conclude by suggesting that contemporary debates on petro-imperialism might consider questioning the role of violence not as a product but as a generator of scarcity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)816-826
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Energy history
  • Oil
  • Scarcity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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