Human beings might never have accomplished half of what we accomplished if not for oil. Oil essentially made the planet smaller for us. It made getting not just ourselves from one place to another on its surface easier (and way faster), it made moving parts of the earth itself from one place to another way easier (exotic construction material like wood from rain forests or oil). Hell, it made the moving itself (from one place to another) incredibly easy. The automobile made long-distance self transportation viable for everyone. It improved upon a technology that had dominated transportation tech for millennia: the horse. Both horse and auto had to “be fed”. But the horse, at some point, needed to sleep or it would die. The internal combustion engine? It worked, well, like a machine. So long as you could keep “feeding” the machine, the machine would go. And go far, far further than any horse.
Then, when flight became a thing – the die were cast. Human innovation has taken off at the environment’s expense. At our expense ultimately. The earth itself can survive having no environment. Homo sapiens on the other hand…
The physical earth will be here long after humans are gone. There was a cool series on the History Channel a few years ago – “Life After People” – that laid just out how quickly nature would reclaim our cities and, in essence, erase them. From a geological point of view, humans aren’t even a blip. Organic life itself – “Nature” – won’t survive ultimately. Whatever lifeforce continues to thrum here on earth will be geological: the violent ebb and flow of molten rock and water. Had there not been life on earth before us – incredibly successful life that populated earth for much longer periods of time than homo sapiens have been here – there would be no oil for homo sapiens to play with. Other energy-producing technologies – coal burning, for instance – damage the environment (whose protective integrity we rely on in order to be here). Even before petroleum became a thing, London experienced diabolical air pollution because of the unfortunate juxtaposition of coal dust in the air and air that, because of London’s physical location – didn’t move.
In December 1952, in fact, London experienced “The Great Smog” which was so bad that pedestrians sometimes couldn’t see their feet. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 4,000 but less conservative analysis put it closer to 12,000 dead Londoners. The Great Smog was composed of coal dust but also auto exhaust. In a way, it really was a “perfect storm” of pollution.
Whether or not Flemish Jesuit priest Ferdinand Verbiest actually built the “toy” he proposed for his employer, the Qing Dynasty emperor, his design – like Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s 1770 design for a fardier à vapeur (intended entirely for military use to transport heavy artillery that horses struggled to move) – had to conquer one problem first in order to be “practical”.
See the boilers? Those are the point of the exercise. Those boilers needed to create steam which drive the “power train” mechanism that engages the wheels. The only available power source is what made the design impractical: coal. The thing that made the vehicle portable also limited its portability. Coal was heavy (which meant the vehicle had to be heavier). And it was slow to power up in the first place (a boiler could take 45 minutes to get hot enough to generate any steam). And all that heavy coal took up a lot of space, not leaving much room for the driver (and none for any “passengers”). Coal was more practical to drive large vehicles like locomotives. But automobiles? No.
The late 1820’s and early 1830’s saw a surge in battery technology innovation, but the batteries, like coal, were heavy and took up tons of space. Refined oil solved all of coal’s and electricity’s problems as an automobile’s “drivers”. It made portability possible because it was so portable.
Think of how much farther a gallon of gas will get you compared to a similarly-sized lump of coal.
Human curiosity is our blessing and our curse. For every problem we solve, we create five more, it seems. Yes, we can get a person or an object from one side of the planet to the other within a day. If we use outer space, we can do it even quicker (because we figured out how to get to outer space). But every time one of us goes up into the air, we do the air harm. A lot of us travel by air which means we keep doing the environment harm. Hell, the truth is, when we get in our cars to drive less than a mile, we’re doing the environment harm. We just prefer not to think about it. Or think that we ourselves are doing it – and don’t have to but for a little initiative.
Once we humans began injecting oil into our lives via our automobiles, boats, planes, ATV’s and motorcycles, we became hooked. Consider what oil did for warfare. Oil extended warfare’s range and lethality. And the pursuit of oil was (and has always been) used to justify all sorts of terrible, immoral behaviors. The Armenian Genocide had as much to do with the Germans building a Berlin-to-Baghdad rail line as it did Turkey’s mistrust of its Armenian population.
Everything about oil is literally dirty – from the process of finding it and pumping it out of the ground to pulling into a service station and pumping it into our cars. It’s impact on every economy it touches is clear. It creates economies. But, it can destroy those economies too (even as it’s creating them). Take Russia, for instance. The second oil becomes meaningless to humanity? Russia’s going to be broke – and broke forever. Same goes for all those Middle Eastern and African countries for whom oil is everything.
Maybe they should all get into the cannabis business instead. Now, that’s a business with a future.