Steve Coll

Corporations are people, my friend. Except, Pulitzer-winning journalist Steve Coll might argue, when the corporation in question is ExxonMobil. The oil behemoth is bigger than people and, with annual profits exceeding $30 billion, bigger than many national economies. It is, with unrelenting and rising global demand, a bigger presence on the map than the U.S. (Though our military is deployed abroad in part to keep its interests safe—an expense for which the company is devoted to paying the least amount of tax possible.) Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Penguin, $36) grimly depicts a might that outlasts any presidential administration, Republican or Democrat. The company can afford to fight global warming research on the one hand, then agree to a carbon tax on the other, because delay is always in its best interests. The longer it stalls, the longer it can extract and sell its one precious product. The EPA and environmental lawsuits and occasional government takeovers of oil fields hardly matter; those are just birds pecking on the rhino’s back. Reading the full 685 pages of Private Empire might drive you to despair, because no amount of Prius-driving individual virtue can stanch the thirst of China and other developing countries. Like a casino, ExxonMobil always wins. And if Coll’s tone is too measured for the Inconvenient Truth crowd, that’s because casinos depend on willing customers. Even if you walk to work each day, whistling to the music from your iPod, that device was shipped from Shenzhen on a freighter powered by diesel fuel. In effect, we have all voted ExxonMobil into power. BRIAN MILLER

Wed., May 9, 7 p.m., 2012