At some point in the 19th century, a wondrous thing was created: The internal combustion engine. Though there is still dispute over who it was created by and the exact year it was finalized, this is a fair timeline for it I think. The engine never had much popularity when it was first created, as it depended on petroleum-based fuel to function. But around the middle of the century oil fields began to be discovered and depleted. And so our oil addiction began.
Since around the turn of the century (the 20th one, that is), oil has been a precious resource. Though it started its history in fairly limited use, its’ importance has grown extremely rapidly over the last century, as the vehicles, industries, and other aspects of life it has fueled grow larger and larger. Nearly every part of life, especially here in America, has become in some way dependent on our oil supply. With the incredible developments in transportation technology, oil’s importance has grown larger and larger, as our cars, airplanes, cargo ships, semi-trucks, trains, cruise vessels, helicopters, military vehicles, and a plethora of other technologies have become almost completely dependent on this fuel. Even if you leave transportation out of the picture, many other products we use in our daily life are dependent on oil as well. In the words of the US Department of Energy: “Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy. Currently, it supplies more than 40% of our total energy demands and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks.” (found on this page)
And beyond the repercussions we’ll face when these reserves we’re so dependent on start running out, our dependence on and high esteem for oil have elevated it to the status of a societal god. One of the most important goals of US foreign policy has become finding and securing our oil supplies, and this “black gold” has become of paramount importance in our relationships with other countries that supply our all-important oil. America is the world’s most voracious consumer of petroleum, and only about half of the oil we use comes from our own soil. The other half comes primarily from Canada, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Nigeria (see the link above for details), which enthralls us to these countries for our most important resource.
I would say, with little hesitation, that our national (and in some ways, global) obsession with oil has reduced the value we place on human life. Entire countries such as Saudi Arabia have become little more than oil fields in public thought, and US leaders are as much concerned about the oil supplies being cut off in LIbya as they are about the people being massacred there. Oil giants like BP build offshore oil rigs that they know have a high chance of failing, at the expense not just of the nature around them, but on the people in their environments too. Some would say that a primary reason George W. Bush pushed for an invasion of Iraq was to secure its lucrative oil fields, and indeed, Iraq is among the top ten oil importers to the United States. I don’t know if I would say this was Bush’s sole reason, but it certainly didn’t hold him back.
There’s a brokenness to this high value we give to oil. Behind it lies the assumption that this natural resource is somehow of higher value than the people also involved in the situation. I understand that our country has a high dependency on oil for our day to day lives, but why is this? We’ve raised our standards of living exponentially in the last century, and it’s gotten to the point where most Americans feel they are somehow entitled to a fair share (or, in many cases, far more than a fair share) of oil for their personal needs. Almost unconsciously, Americans consume vast amounts of natural resources daily, in most cases without knowing the costs to the environment and the people in that environment.
But this goes beyond oil. The American people have been living beyond their means in many ways for years now. While all of our technological super-advances of the last century (and even the last decade) have made our lives more connected, more convenient, and even more fun, this comes at a cost that few people are willing to recognize. The more resources and luxuries we come to depend on for our daily lives, the more we suffer when they’re taken away or are harder to come by, as we saw in the peak of oil prices a few years ago in the US. So maybe it’s time to cut back. Maybe it’s time to realize that our choices and luxuries have a real cost to real people. Maybe it’s time to free ourselves from this cycle.