On The World's Most Wondrous Substance
You may threaten the future of civilization, but I can’t seem to live without you
In 2019 the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom was thinking about the things that might kill us.
In his vulnerable world hypothesis, Bostrom asks us to picture human creativity as the process of pulling marbles out of a giant urn. The white ones represent inventions or discoveries that enrich humanity. The grey ones are a mixed blessing; think nuclear fission which has given us nuclear power but also nuclear weapons.
Bostrom says at some point we will pull a black marble from the urn, “a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it.” Since we’re still here Bostrom believes this hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not so sure. We may have drawn one back at the dawn of the industrial revolution and are only now coming to terms with the implications of our invention.
For the first 150 or so years of its existence, this technological marvel was thought to be harmless. It became the lifeblood of our economies and energy systems. It heats our homes and fuels our way across land, air, and sea. Almost anything can be made from it.
Discoveries cannot be undiscovered, so once any marble comes out of the urn it cannot go back in. This marble is different, though. Even if we could put it back, we probably wouldn’t. It is too good to give up.
I. The Oil Defender’s Gambit
Oil is an amazing substance. This has never been in dispute, yet it seems to be a point of confusion when we talk about our dependency on it.
These conversations usually go something like this: I attend a rally against fossil fuels which, at the rate we are burning them, threaten to change our climate in the coming centuries in ways that imperil human civilization. I think this is bad. I would prefer civilization was not imperilled.
A friend, or perhaps one of my enemies, later sees a few of my pictures from the rally and helpfully points out that people do not attend rallies to protest substances they think are amazing. He notes that the car I drove there runs on fossil fuels; the lid on the coffee I picked up beforehand is made with oil derivatives; the supply chain that brought that coffee to my local coffee purveyor is powered by oil.
But why stop there? I might respond. That car I drove? You need oil to make the tires, the seats, and most of the vehicle itself before you put anything in the tank. The house I live in? The paint, the caulking, the shingles, the plumbing. Oil again. My clothes, the ones I wore to the rally probably, are woven from synthetics that wouldn’t exist without oil. My shoes, oil. The computer on which I’m typing this, the seat I’m sitting on, cold medicine, chewing gum, toothpaste, deodorant…
Exactly! My interlocutor says. It is hypocritical to ask that we stop using oil when you yourself rely on it every day.
Which, fair. Running water, computers, takeout coffee, shelter — all good things. If my convictions obligate me to give up not just the conveniences of modern life, but the clothes off my back and the roof over my head, I am a hypocrite.
But the fact that I can’t stop contributing to the problem shouldn’t be taken as an indication that it’s not really a problem. That’s why it’s a problem.
II. A Miracle of The Modern Age
Maybe the modern world didn’t have to be this way. In the early 1900s, electric cars were considered superior to gasoline-powered ones. They were faster, more maneuverable, and more reliable. And besides, “you can’t get people to sit over an explosion,” one high-profile investor predicted confidently in 1896.
Yet following the Second World War, when the U.S. factories manufacturing armaments went back to making civilian wares, a new exercise in nation building got underway. A few missteps by top electric car companies, cheap fuels, some clever marketing, and America’s burgeoning car culture became entirely gasoline powered. Strip malls, highways, suburbia, and huge swathes of modern infrastructure owe their existence to that culture. As one documentarian of the era noted, “Had this period of random technological mutation selected for the electric, the social history of America would be unrecognizable.”
Then there are plastics, a fossil fuel byproduct. Did we have to make everything out of plastic? Probably not, but in the 1960s this novel material was regarded as a miracle. I don’t mean this in the colloquial sense. I mean plastic could do things that the laws of nature seemed not to permit. It didn’t break like glass. It was cheap, reproducible, and could be molded into virtually anything that would last basically forever. “The hierarchy of substances is abolished,” Roland Barthes writes in one essay. “A single one replaces them all.”
Then there are oil’s applications for which there is no suitable substitute. There is no substance like jet fuel, nor will there be for the foreseeable future. The only way the average Canadian can experience the world outside of driving distance — Tokyo, Cape Town, Tangiers, Rome — is if we decide to keep running the vast machine that extracts the remains of primordial creatures from the earth and burns them.
It’s impossible to imagine life without oil. It has shaped everything from our daily lives to the world’s cultures and macro systems in ways that transcend any individual’s understanding or moral judgment. Is oil bad? That’s like asking if technology is bad. Or the sea. It's too big to fit in the question.
III. Oil’s Greatest Trick
There are new omens that now demand our attention, mostly because of how easy they are to ignore.
Plastics that won’t naturally degrade for centuries are swirling in ocean patches larger than the Maritimes. In a few decades, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Nanoplastics are flowing through my blood stream and yours. We don’t know what that means for our health, exactly, but we know our bodies can’t process it. In your lifetime you’ll eat an estimated 44 pounds of the stuff. As Jeannette Cooperman darkly points out in one essay, you'd have an easier time digesting a seven-year-old.
After one cross-Atlantic flight, my personal greenhouse gas emissions from this singular event exceed the annual total of the average resident of 56 countries. These tend to be countries that are uniquely vulnerable to increased storm severity, drought, flooding, crop failures, political unrest, civil conflict, and a whole host of interrelated issues that are exacerbated by the airline industry, our energy systems, and basically every other oil-powered system on which civilized life depends.
You may think it’s an exaggeration to say climate change may lead to the collapse of civilization within the next few hundred years. Maybe it is. But consider: our dependence on oil is changing the climate faster than an extinction event in earth’s distant past that extinguished 95% of all animal life. That event might have taken as little as 100,000 years, the geological equivalent of the click of a camera shutter. And those are fucking rookie numbers compared to what we're doing now. A recent paper found that earth's wildlife populations have plunged nearly 70% on average in the last 50 years.
We feel insulated from these forces but we are not. The end of civilization will come long before the end of human life, and there are many degrees of hardship and unpleasantness between the two that not even our most pessimistic prophets can fathom. Civilization is not a robust construct. Push hard enough in the right places and things begin breaking faster than they can be fixed.
Yet, oil is so enchanting that it pushes these things to the mind’s peripheries. I want to find better ways to live without oil, but in the meantime, I have places to go and things to get done and I need oil to do almost all of them. There are dozens of factors that affect my choices, and concerns over the continued prosperity of civilization tend to get drowned out by the hum of the car engine or lost amid the excitement of a package just-arrived from a distant factory or disappear into the quiet anticipation at an airport gate.
IV. A World Remade
Could we have said no? Even if we could foresee our current predicament, could we forgo everything oil has made possible?
If we had, the connections between our cities would likely look something like they did in the 18th century. Comforts, conveniences, and technologies beyond the imagining of history’s richest royals and aristocrats, now democratized, gone. The wealth of entire nations, left in the ground. We can’t even say no now. Saying no at the dawn of the industrial revolution might have seemed as foolish as continuing the course we’re on today.
We often love things that are bad for us, but there are few vices that could be said to be essential. Maybe that's the honest appraisal we need to begin to remake the world without oil.
I don’t know what that new world will look like or how to get there, but I’m certain that if we look far enough into the future, a world where we fail won’t look anything like ours today.
Originally commissioned by BESIDE magazine, a which is great and visually stunning publication that you should read and support. Issue 13 is coming out soon.
Comments are closed.