Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don Easton's "Portrait of a (Oil Industry) Capitalist"

Way back in the mid-1940s Union Oil had illustrator Don Easton draw a series of ads promoting the oil company's position in the business of providing fuel to the American consumer market. Perhaps even in those hopeful post-war days, when the industrial sector was not viewed with a jaundiced eye (and long before environmental concerns), Union Oil felt that the public perception of the oil industry was that a few fat cats puffing on big cigars and sipping from brandy snifters were making a killing at the expense of 'the little guy'. Union Oil asked us to consider "who actually runs the oil companies?"


Buried in the text-heavy copy of those ads are some undeniable truths that no one in those days could have imagined would come back to haunt us half a century later.


These statements were made with a different motive in mind, but if we had had the benefit of genuine forsight, perhaps we would have read a forbidding warning in what was meant to be a reassuring confirmation that we (all of us average hard working consumers) were "in the driver's seat."


It turns out all we need to do is look in the mirror to see the portrait of a capitalist. I'm not saying its a dirty word by the way (before all the Fox News watchers jump down my throat) I'm just saying that we are all culpable in disasters like the one unfolding in the Gulf. The oil economy transformed the world and raised the standard of living for untold millions of (mostly western) people. Its also caused untold suffering to millions and millions of people, plants and animals all over the world.

Unfortunately every silver lining has a dark cloud inside of it. And tar balls.


I'm as guilty as anybody so, seriously, I am not meaning to preach. I just thought it was sort of interesting when I stumbled across these ads in my collection and, by coincidence, we find ourselves immersed in the worst oil spill disaster in the history of civilization ( latest estimate, nine times worse than the Exxon Valdez and counting ) and I see all the fingers pointing blame at somebody else. Union Oil spelled it out half a century ago: "the people in this country determine [an oil company's] entire course of action... whether it shall expand its drilling operations or curtail them" ... with their "votes" at the cash register. For our purposes in modern times, that can be expanded to "the people of the world..." because let's face it, with automobile ownership and a rapidly expanding middle (consumer) class in Asia, we're really all in this together from here on in.


The question is, have we learned anything at all or will it be business as usual? And where do we go from here?

* Although I know nothing about illustrator Don Easton I have a gut feeling he was a West Coast illustrator ( and Union Oil was a California company so it makes sense ). Easton's ink line drawings are really lovely to look at close up so I have posted these scans 50% bigger than I usually do. Just click on any one to see the details of these many small spots in greater detail.

* My Industry Flickr set.

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