Today’s Environmental Crisis Was Created in 1919

The Paris Peace Conference set the stage for our oil-soaked global society.

British soldiers on a Mark IV tank in 1918.
British soldiers on a Mark IV tank in 1918. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One hundred years ago, the world looked on at the Paris Peace Conference as statesmen from around the globe, with a mixture of hope and desperation, set the terms for the defeated powers of World War I. 1919 is often remembered for its effects on political and economic history. After four years of war, the peace talks that tried to stitch back together a continent ushered in a new era of international politics that would eventually spell the decline of Europe and the rise of an American hegemon. But this year also had enormous bearing on energy history. Now that human-made global warming is no longer looming but has arrived, it is more urgent than ever to understand the events that created the Anthropocene.

Energy historians often point to World War II as the conflict that most helped bring our oil-soaked global society into being. Not only did the machinery of that war run on oil, but key moments of the conflict hinged on petroleum, from Adolf Hitler’s drive for the Caucasus to Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia. In many respects, however, the more fateful plunge into petroleum occurred during the previous global conflict and its aftermath. 1919, in other words, marked a pivotal step on humankind’s march toward our current age of hydrocarbons.

To be sure, older energies like animal muscle and coal fueled World War I. Nearly 8 million horses died during the conflict. Meanwhile, coal industries were strained like never before as they strove to produce the machinery that would slaughter millions of people. But beneath the surface, vast changes in U.S. and European energy systems were unfolding, profoundly influencing how contemporaries thought about everything from security to welfare and leading to new corporate formations in the field of petroleum that persist to this day.

Premonitions of a new age of oil-fired militaries had existed before 1914, particularly once Winston Churchill shifted Britain’s battleships to petroleum in 1912. But these only became reality during the war itself, as planners came to appreciate the ability of oil-based machinery to shape military outcomes. The very first campaign in 1914 was marked by a new application of gasoline, when hundreds of taxis shuttled troops from Paris to the front, helping France to win the Battle of the Marne. This set a precedent for military organization, which became increasingly divorced from rail over the next four years. By the war’s end, the British army, which had under 900 cars in 1914, was managing a fleet of 56,000 trucks, 23,000 cars, and 34,000 motorcycles. And the Allies won the war in part by deploying a fleet of 6,000 new gas-guzzling tanks.

The wartime demand for oil surpassed all forecasts, its logistical importance growing so immense that each belligerent placed oil distribution under the supervision of state authorities working in collaboration with large companies. Thus was born the close relationship between state and business that characterizes the oil industry to this day. During the war, Standard Oil of New Jersey, which had previously been vilified by the U.S. government, became a mainstay of the country’s supply system while the new National Petroleum War Service Committee was run by the largest oil companies. In 1919, this would transform into the American Petroleum Institute—today a main source of industry data and a leading force in climate change denial. After oil shortage scares in 1917, the Allies formed the Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference, which was also run by the largest oil corporations working alongside state officials in a manner that contravened U.S. antitrust laws. This committee coordinated the flow of crude across the Atlantic and set a precedent for governments using corporations to navigate energy challenges: Oil crises in 1956, 1967, and 1973 would see strikingly similar moves.

Things were no different on the other side of the war. After Germany’s breakthrough in Romania—the largest petroleum source in Central Europe—the British scorched the region’s oil fields, filling the sky with black smoke for months. In the meantime, against the wishes of its own businessmen, Germany formed a state corporation to control what was left of Romania’s petroleum. Throughout 1918, Germany struggled with its own ally, the Ottoman Empire, over oil in the Caucasus. And as late as September 1918, after the German army had begun to disintegrate, its generals were still planning to control Russian oil in preparation for the “economic war after the war.”

Oil, in other words, was one of the most contested commodities of the war. But perhaps the more significant developments in this story took place not in Europe but across the Atlantic. There, an automobile revolution was changing the face of the United States. Although the inventors of the internal combustion engine hailed from Europe, it was America that wedded mass-produced automobiles with oil to produce not just a new form of transportation but a new measure of well-being.

America’s abundance of oil combined with a federal land policy that encouraged exploration made the country the center of the young petroleum industry. But before 1914, a variety of energies vied to fuel the new horseless carriage, including electricity and steam. Petroleum emerged victorious partly because of its energy density—but just as much because of Henry Ford, an organizational genius who once almost put his energy behind an electric engine.

When Ford settled on gasoline for his car, which was manufactured through the new technique of assembly line production, the automotive revolution began. By 1916, America unveiled its first federal highway funding act, devoting millions of dollars to connect rural regions by road. At nearly the same time, California embarked on its trajectory of suburban sprawl by pursuing a risky yet wildly successful road-building project. The oil-car nexus was born. Between 1914 and 1920, registered cars in the United States exploded from 1.8 million to 9.2 million. By the late 1920s, more than three-quarters of the world’s cars were built in the United States.

Europeans took notice of America’s automotive-oil nexus. After the war, engineers, union leaders, and business consultants streamed to Michigan to study Ford’s techniques. None other than Hitler looked to Ford and to America with its oil and its cars as the new standard of the global economy. America was where he believed the European would find “the yardstick for his life.” In his second book, written a decade after 1919, he noted how “it is a question of the general motorizing of the world that is a matter of incommensurable importance for the future.” In 1938, Hitler would honor Ford both for the inventor’s anti-Semitism as well as for his energy-intensive approach to production.

After World War I, in other words, Europeans feared they were falling behind a rising American superpower, and much of this gap was perceived to stem from oil. Once the Soviet Union retook Baku in 1920, America controlled nearly 90 percent of the petroleum available to the noncommunist world, a hard fact that generated immense tensions among the victorious Allies. As French Oil Minister Henri Bérenger ominously warned: “Oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace.”

The enthusiasm for oil overlapped with the most strained labor relations the coalfields of Europe had ever witnessed. During the war, the need for coal had elevated miners’ bargaining position, allowing them to make claims for better conditions and for that great taboo of the business owner: nationalization. With demobilization in 1919, labor actions surged across the industrial world as newly decommissioned soldiers returned seeking better lives. Delegates to the Versailles conference witnessed street battles. Britain averted a rail and coal strike only by offering the eight-hour workday, but just months later striking miners called for the full nationalization of coal pits. Similar demands erupted in Central Europe. America, meanwhile, suffered the largest strike wave in its history, forcing President Woodrow Wilson to concede privately that certain raw materials might become property of the state.

In 1919, then, coal seemed more politically charged than ever. The general deflation of 1920 that gripped the industrial world would weaken labor movements but not before the cascade of strikes opened the space for oil to begin making inroads into markets once dominated by coal. This opening was due partly to the material nature of mining, in which workers commanded strategic positions in the supply chain that brought coal to the factories of Europe and America. By contrast, labor played a much more limited role in oil extraction. But just as much it resulted from politicians who believed that they must have this fuel to sustain their geopolitical ambitions. Again, the bombastic Bérenger captured this sensibility when he remarked that “he who owns the oil will own the world.”

Thus it came as no surprise that in 1919 the first global “oil war” erupted, fought not by armies but by multinational corporations, officials, and engineers. Britain and France commenced this struggle in 1918, when France informally traded Mosul to Britain in return for a guaranteed share in the region’s oil. With this, Britain gained the power to authorize new petroleum concessions in the Persian Gulf, Palestine, and Iraq. London, moreover, hoped to secure its empire by keeping America’s Standard Oil away from these new fields. French officials, after a dispute with Standard Oil triggered a supply crisis, now wanted their own source of petroleum. Throughout 1919, the two colonial powers worked out the details of this oil-for-territory swap, which they finalized with the San Remo agreement of 1920 that gave French, British, and Dutch oil companies exclusive rights to the former Ottoman Empire.

These negotiations infuriated American oil companies and state officials. Stoking their anxieties were the first warnings of an impending peak in domestic oil. In 1919, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted America’s oil fields would max out in the next five or ten years. Gasoline prices spiked, and oil shortages erupted. As so many energy forecasts before and since, those of 1919 would prove wildly inaccurate. But at the time they led American companies, which had hitherto done little prospecting beyond the nation’s borders, to clamor for access to the Middle East. American officials supported these corporations and began pushing Britain to open its sphere. The United States also crafted its own Mineral Leasing Act, which excluded from oil leases on federal land any citizen whose country’s laws denied such privileges to American firms.

After a year and a half, this pressure wore down the British, whose statesmen needed American help with other challenges and whose oil firms needed U.S. technical assistance to exploit the Middle East. In 1928, American, British, Dutch, and French companies, supported by their governments, concluded the Red Line Agreement, which let U.S. companies into what would become the center of global petroleum production for the rest of the century.

The oil war of 1919-1920 fixed the geography of petroleum production until the 1970s. It helped Britain and France secure privileged access to this resource, furthering the imperial order that favored the global north over the global south and permitting these states to become some of the largest carbon emitters in history.

But the real victor was the United States. After 1919, it transformed its relationship to Middle Eastern oil. In 1918, its companies had virtually no access to what would become Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the Gulf states. By 1934, American companies had substantial participation in nearly all of them. The oil war after the war, put simply, reinforced America’s growing power by adding this resource to the list of other assets in its burgeoning imperial toolkit.

Most importantly, the corporate constellations that emerged out of 1919-1920 laid the foundation for the United States to continue burning petroleum in nearly unlimited quantities even after it became a net oil importer (1953) and after its domestic production really did seem to peak (1970). The path by which the United States became one of the world’s largest carbon emitters may have begun in the 19th century, but it took a profound turn in 1919 to create the world in which we live today.

Stephen G. Gross is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.