Oil Is a Magic Flounder!


It took Bill McKibben pointing it out to me (in his book Eaarth), but I finally understand that oil is a miracle. It gives wishes. It’s amazing.

I remember going to Europe when I was 20 on an ultra-cheap backpacking trip, stepping off the plane in Belgium and thinking This is crazy! I’m on the other side of the world! … on the average day, I probably travel farther from home than a lot of people for most of history traveled in their lives … I can tap on a few keys and magically answer nearly any question within moments (say what you will, but I think Wikipedia is probably one of the top ten things ever) … I can take a five-minute trip to the grocery store and for a pittance buy food from practically anywhere in the world …

And all of it is brought to us by oil! Not just oil, of course: coal and other fossil fuels help out, and these days even some renewable energy, but basically we’ve achieved the ability to do practically anything–from making realistic movies set on invented planets to landing on the moon to yogurt in squeeze tubes–thanks to the limitless energy made available by fossil fuels.

Except, of course, it’s not limitless, and there’s this tragic catch to it: this climate change problem. We’re so used to having a seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels, we think nothing of buying a stack of plastic plates and throwing them away after one use to languish in a dump for decades or centuries. We don’t mind using up massive amounts of jet fuel to travel to other continents just to sightsee. We toss away things we paid hundreds of dollars for a few years ago just because the new version 5 is out. We mostly just don’t get it.

Sorry, I’m starting to preach, and you don’t need preaching to: if you’re on this site reading this, you almost certainly get it already, that we’ve gotten used to the idea that things are cheap and easy and replaceable and will always be that way, even though our resources are getting a little thin and we’re making terrible, irreversible changes to our planet.

I’m starting to adjust to all this. I’m trying to revise my thoughts. For a recent meeting I was running where there was food, I went to the trouble of bringing all of the small plates and most of the forks from our kitchen rather than bringing paper plates and plasticware. They were a little heavy, but it turned out to be no big deal. When I sit down on our home computer, I’m no longer thinking “This is OK, but it’s a few years old–when can I justify getting a new one?” but rather “This works fine. How can I make it last?” Even though it’s stupidly late in the winter to be doing it, I finally went to the window at work that is so hard to open it’s physically painful and wrestled down the storm window. (I may be undoing that in a month, but at least in the meantime I won’t be wasting heat.) These are the changes I need to embrace: looking around me, realizing that we only have all the miracles we have because we’ve bought them with cheap energy we dug up, and doing the smart thing even when it’s inconvenient or not as nice or not what anyone else does.

Yet wonderfully, we don’t have to give all these things up. We can still have cars and movies and even, bless it, the Internet if we’re willing to make the changes to much more sustainable ways of living, producing, manufacturing, and powering. Fossil fuels have given us a huge leg up in infrastructure, manufacturing, and invention–Ironically, it’s fossil fuels that have made it possible for us to develop efficient wind turbines and solar panels and geothermal heating systems. When I say that oil is a miracle, I mean it–but knowing that it’s a miracle with a price, I really, really, really want to see us let go of it as quickly as possible by doing everything possible so that we can still benefit from everything meaningful our culture has achieved without paying the awful price that is beginning to come due.

I look around, and almost every human-made thing I see exists because of oil. We’re like the fisherman’s wife in the old fairy tale, who once she got what she wanted kept asking for more and more things until the magic flounder who granted the wishes in the first place took it all away again. Let’s be the smart people who never show up in these stories, the people who are delighted with what they have. We’ve had cheap, abundant energy now for generations, so much of it that it has yielded us the technology to create more cheap, abundant energy–but renewably this time. We have everything we need, provided we can just let the damn flounder alone.

Photo by Jason Rojas