Thursday, May 15, 2008

The importance of oil and how to change it

The debate over fossil fuels is often in the context of global warming and alternate energies. But in fact, oil is one of the single most important physical resources that we as a civilization possess.

Just for fun, take a look around where you live. See any plastic? It's probably everywhere, even if you don't realize it, from plastic bags, to bottles, to toys, to compact discs, to rubber, to Goddamn model food replicas. All of that is made from oil. Look outdoors; you see the roads? Guess how they make asphault. I could go on and on; suffice to say that we owe a lot to oil.

It's really a crime that we burn any of it. And it's finite. We have maybe another few decades before it becomes prohibitively expensive. But little changes in our lifestyle make a difference. Ed from ginandtacos makes the point:

I wonder why people like McKibben don’t spend more time presenting these problems in a way that doesn’t overwhelm readers’ feelings that they can do something concrete about it. Not “write your Congressman” or “vote for environmentalists” but actually do something measurable. When he says “The planet is going to die and you have to fix it” there aren’t many people who think that’s a realistic goal. Maybe, for example, he could write a column about how re-usable canvas grocery bags can save 300-500 plastic (made from oil, of course) or paper bags per shopper every year. Even though suburban America is resistant to anything that asks for a lifestyle change or suggests that profligate consumption is not our birthright, most people will read that and think “Well that’s not so fucking hard.” I mean, honestly, how hard is it to use a different bag to carry groceries? It isn’t. At all. It’s so goddamn easy that….people might actually do it.

So we wean ourselves off of plastic grocery bags as a nation. McKibben has a tangible victory. An example toward which to point. “See? We changed something. And it was easy! Now let’s try…..” Because the problem here is not SUVs or lack of public transit or McMansions. Those are symptoms. The problem is that our entire national mindset is fucked up. We simply do not think about conservation, waste, or efficiency at all. We ask only two questions: What do I want? What is easiest/most convenient for me?

I'm not quite as negative as Ed; the environmental movement has come a long way, and most people are at least sympathetic to it. The problem is a lack of information. A lot of people just don't understand how important this is, and our governments need to show some leadership.

For one example, governments all around the world have passed legislation that will phase out or outright ban the use of incandescent lightbulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, which use only a fraction of the power. I think a similar committment is needed to limit the use of plastics and other petroleum products.

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