Thank you for oil

Prayer at Thanksgiving

We have a lot to be thankful for, even as it slips away. Image: hpebley3 via Flickr.

As families gather around Thanksgiving tables to voice the things they’re thankful for—usually family, friends, “this time together”—I’ll be offering my thanks for oil. Not for the olive oil that might be used to sauté some of our veggies, though I’m thankful for that too. No, I’m talking about petroleum.

When we think about oil we mostly see it as gasoline, or lubricant for a car. Petroleum so infuses every aspect of our modern life that its presence fades into the background. Oil is to our economic and practical life what breathing is to our bodies: we have very little consciousness of it.

Unless you’re in a yoga class, or meditating at church, you’re unlikely to pause and take in the wonder of breathing. Of your dependence on clean air. On the symbiotic relationship your body has with the world it inhabits—drawing in the breath of life, exhaling the impurities. Breathing just happens. If our minds had to focus on breathing all the time, there would be little else that the human brain could address.

Slick work

Oil is much the same. It doesn’t just go into our cars. It’s not just the stuff the delivery driver dumps into your heating tank for the winter. Like breathing, oil is everywhere, unnoticed.

Look around the space you’re in right now. Oil will be in every last thing you see. Though its use poisons the very air our bodies depend on, oil nonetheless has provided our modern life, since the industrial revolution, with just about everything we use today. Or as Bob Dylan might have put it, “everything from toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” It provides another thing that Dylan noticed. A change in our attitude. As Dylan sang, “its easy to see that not much is really sacred.”

While we like to say that we don’t “take things for granted,” we in fact, do. Big time. And the things we take for granted are, figuratively speaking, dripping in oil.

Unless you’re one of a rare few who might be having Thanksgiving at a rustic cabin, heated by wood, absent of electric lights, sitting on hand-hewn furnishings and eating off of potter’s plates using blacksmith’s cutlery, then everything on your Thanksgiving table has a relationship to crude. No judgment here; mine does too. It’s the culture we live in.

Things are made using petroleum, wrapped in the plastic of petroleum and then transported using petroleum. And the amazing thing is, it’s only been this way for about 150 years. This time we’re in is an unbelievably unique moment in history. And while a good many of us might bemoan the economy right now, we live like kings and queens compared to most of the rest of the world. Compared to people throughout time, most of us live with great abundance, convenience, security, comfort, and absence of toil. And all because of oil.

Oil is truly, phenomenally amazing. We’ve pumped the stuff for all it’s worth. We’ve gone through it in record time. There hasn’t just been a chicken in every pot. There’s been a hand-hammered, copper-bottomed, Pottery Barn pot for every chicken. All because of oil.

Thank you, again, Texas tea!

The catch

But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining has a cloud. Oil, you see, is a finite resource. No matter how many magic wands we’d like to wave, no matter how much wishful thinking we put to it, there’s only so much oil we can affordably access and use. And right now, the rest of the world wants access to that crude too. They also want to live like kings and queens. Who can blame them? We’ve got it pretty good.

The problem is, the stuff is running out. All the more reason to be very thankful for it this Thanksgiving. All the more reason to glance around in awe at the wonders oil has brought. All the more reason to make good on what it means to not take things for granted.

Don’t worry, be happy

We also live in a time when business, big business, is so driven to its own ends, to its profits, to its capabilities, that even as light sweet crude oil has seen its world peak, producers tell us not to worry. They say we’ve got plenty of options. They say just sit back and let the black gold flow from deepwater platforms like the one that just went belly up and belching in the Gulf.

Don’t worry. The industry also says they know how to make gummy gravel in the Canadian tar sands into more oil, ensuring many more decades of “toy guns that spark.”

But it’s not true, and that’s the rub.

Tar sands and deepwater drilling costs many, many, many, many (seriously, many!) more times to recover and refine than does light sweet crude. Does anyone really think we’re going to dredge all that up, pipe it down to Texas to refine it, then fill a tanker to send the oil to China so that they can make our toy guns that spark and ship them back to us in shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes?

No way. It will just cost too much. The real question is, Can we live without toy guns that spark?

Glow-in-the-dark Jesus says yes. We might not even miss them. And we might learn how to make potter’s plates. Or hand-hewn furniture. And it might even be fun.

Thank you oil. You had a nice run of it. Man, you’ve given us some amazing things. Things far more amazing than toy guns that spark. Things like life-saving medical equipment. Computers. Hey, vinyl records and plastic CDs were among your most kick-ass contributions. Rock and roll, oil!

But then again, some of your plastics have made us sick. And then there’s the wars. The pollution, and all that asthma. So it hasn’t all been good, though flying to Italy for a weekend is hard to knock, (not that I’ve ever personally been that fortunate, but a girl can dream).

Anyway, now we need to think about the ways that we can save you for the things we need the most. Like communications. Transportation. Water safety. But we’ll get to more of that later.

For now, most sincerely, I just want to say, Thank you for oil.

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  1. Monk says

    Unfortunately, U.S. citizens make up less than 5 pct of the world’s population. Most human beings in the world need oil not to live like kings but to obtain basic needs that the middle class (which makes up only a fraction of the world’s population) take for granted, such as running water, electricity, food, and medicine. At least a few human beings have something to be thankful about. As for the rest….

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