Life Without Oil

Originally published in Flourishing February 2012

Today, it’s common wisdom – if that’s the right word – to think of our environment as something that starts out healthy, but that we’ve messed up. The worst thing we produce, it is alleged, is “oil”. That just drives me crazy, because it’s the inverse of my entire life’s experience. Yours, too.

In the very early 1950’s, I attended kindergarten at Simpson Elementary School in Russell, Kansas. Our family lived in a rented house – a shack really – a few blocks away on Elm Street (no, not that Elm Street). I remember the day an oil-drilling rig pulled into our unpaved driveway and backed up across the street into the vacant lot next to my friend Nancy’s house. A few weeks later, the rig pulled out and a pump was installed; a black oil storage tank, too. Ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I was fascinated to watch the head of that pump bob up and down; and it never stopped. Drilling to China, maybe. Ker-thump, ker-thump – twenty-four hours a day. Like a beating heart. I don’t remember being frightened or otherwise damaged by the well, but I do remember that my mother was worried about a polio outbreak in our town that summer that had killed or crippled several neighborhood children about my age.

A few years later, from about the age of ten, my friends and I would swim in the Saline River as it flowed through the Bemis (oil) Field in Rooks County, Kansas between Hays and Plainville. The Boy Scout troop of which I was a member had access to a small cabin and skeet-shooting range in the area. Local oil producers had suspended some of their pipelines above the river, hanging them on steel cables. The pipelines occasionally leaked, but we weren’t concerned about the thin glassy film floating on the river’s surface; we were too busy watching for snakes. The suspended lines were also an adventuresome way to cross the river, swinging as they did from our shifting weight and a gusting high plains wind.

If you had been there with me, you would know that I was more endangered by the campfires we built from cow dung and fallen cottonwoods—or by the aforementioned snakes – than by the oil all around us. We strained and then boiled the drinking water we got from the river, not to rid it of oil – that floats to the top and is easily avoided by dipping your pail more deeply into the stream – but of bird droppings and other such “natural”, non-floating contaminates.

Amazingly, here I am, more than fifty years later, timeworn perhaps, but undamaged by the oily environment of my youth. The greatest risks to my health now seem to be appetite and sloth.

As I look back, I sometimes compare my life with oil to the life of Carl Petterson, Linda’s great-great-grandfather. When Carl came to America from Sweden more than one hundred and twenty five years ago, his first Kansas home was a sod-covered dugout in what is now the Green Mound neighborhood of southeastern Mitchell County. Even a kerosene lamp would have been a luxury for Carl, as I’m sure it might have been for some your ancestors. His nights were lit only by the moon, firewood, and lightning.

Carl didn’t have creosote posts or diesel-powered tractors. He fenced his eighty acres with hand-hewn limestone post-rock, and he walked his plow behind a horse. Still, Carl did well enough to leave five acres of his land for a church, and another five for the church cemetery, where Linda and I will be buried.

Today, his descendants can cultivate his eighty acres and mow his cemetery in less time than it took Carl to hitch up his horse and plow.

I could, of course, tell a similar story about Isaac Martin Harvey, who was born in London, and his son George Washington Harvey, who was born in Peoria, Illinois. They settled together on land that now forms the bottom of Lake Afton west of Wichita and south of Goddard. You know that Afton is a man-made lake providing an important water supply to area residents, as well as a relaxing place for recreation. It was developed in the 1930’s–and is currently maintained—with the use of machinery powered by refined derivatives of oil.

Contrary to modern assumptions, nature doesn’t give us a healthy environment to live in. For those who think that oil and oil pipelines are “dirty” and “unnatural”, I suggest reading some history* about more “natural,” pre-industrial times—or visiting a country where people are still living in “natural,” pre-industrial conditions. One might study places and times where the streets and streams were (and are) filled with both human and animal excrement; where childhood mortality exceeded (and still exceeds) fifty percent; where walking is the standard mode of transportation; and where gas stations and power plants are unheard of. I could go on, but you know all this. Many of you have been there and done that.

We in America live in an environment where the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat will not make us sick; and where we can even cope with natural catastrophes like Greensburg and Joplin. These are achievements made possible by cheap and abundant energy, e.g. oil. We can live this way only by getting machines—powered mostly by oil and its derivatives—to do more than ninety-nine percent of our physical, and even mental, work for us.

Products derived from oil are what we need to build and maintain comfortable, climate controlled homes. We need oil to produce and transport vast quantities of fresh and frozen food, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals and orthopedic devices; etc., ad infinitum.

And, how do we travel across the country and around the world, very often for the sole purpose of safely enjoying the most beautiful parts of nature, which pre-industrial people had neither the time nor the energy to do? Oil.

I know that you believe in making decisions based on facts, not fantasies. So, consider the fact that so-called “green” technologies have given us no evidence that they can produce the plentiful, cheap, reliable energy that a modern and healthy human environment requires. Despite more than forty years of government subsidies, which draw resources from more viable and freely chosen purposes, and utopian “green” fantasies incessantly promoted by the government, the media, and in our schools, only two percent of the world’s energy comes from solar and wind technologies. Even that two percent must be backed up by conventional power-generating sources like nuclear, coal, hydro, natural gas—and oil. The sun is helpless at night; and even in Kansas, the wind is calm sometimes. But, these are the least of the obstacles to “green” energy efficiency. The laws of physics pose far greater, even insoluble, problems.

I know I’m old-fashioned: I still believe in a day’s work for a day’s pay and stuff like that. But it’s amazing to me that we’re so gullible as to take energy advice from politicians who tell us to trust our health and prosperity to unproven unprovable and wasteful “green energy” technologies. All the while, they condemn as “dirty” the very energy source—oil—that has brought us the cleanest, healthiest, most prosperous environment in the history of mankind.

Go figure. There are literally billions of people around the world who yearn for a liquid fuel, carried through a magnificently stout pipeline – or any pipeline – to help them create a modern human environment for themselves and their families. Yet here we are, so pleased with our own “green-ness” that we take the practical and affordable energy we get from fossil fuels for granted. And now, we’re actually putting another clamp on the aorta of our energy-driven, oil-dependent economy by postponing the proven, subsidy-free, Keystone XL Pipeline.

Our nature as human beings is to use our intelligence to create more livable and more comfortable environments for our families and ourselves. Dug-outs and dung fires will no longer do. Moreover, in America, we don’t need rulers or czars to dictate or approve what, where, and how we can produce and transport the energy our lives require. Perhaps I digress, but I don’t think so.

We are intelligent and independent individuals living in a society dedicated to liberty and prosperity. As such we have every right and obligation to embrace market-based energy production and privately financed transportation systems; in particular, the Keystone XL Pipeline which is needed now to bring oil from Canada to America’s gulf coast refineries.

The Keystone XL Pipeline would double the capacity of the existing Keystone from 591,000 barrels of oil per day to 1.3 million barrels. The CEO of Gulf Oil estimates that Keystone XL would save American consumers about $.20 per gallon on the price of gasoline. Alternatively of course, we can continue to import that oil from Saudi Arabia. No joke, that’s another price we’ll pay for being “green”.

So, the “dirty oil” objection is really just a dirty trick. Every energy source creates some kind of unpleasant byproduct. I’ve already mentioned firewood and cow dung, and I trust your experience is close enough to my own, that no further detail is needed. I could tell you about the side-effects of mining the materials that go into solar panels and windmills, and the incredible amount of coal and oil that goes into manufacturing, transporting, and assembling their parts, but you can easily intuit all of that for yourself. The “dirty oil” objection is just a shell game used by scoundrels—and that is exactly the right word—to divert our attention from the fact that they really don’t want any kind of industrial development at all.

Let me say it again, plainly: Virtually every necessity and convenience of modern life depends on the production and flow of oil—a Herculean task. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that the likes of Solyndra or Beacon Power will ever match the life-enhancing power of North America’s great oil industry. mh

* A good place to start is Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life, Fernand Braudel, University of California Press, 1992.