An oil tale

I doubt very many people give much thought anymore to the tired media adage that the United States is addicted to oil. Sure, people see the price of gas, and they understand that price is somehow tied to oil, but what they’ve never comprehended is that the price of almost everything else is also tied to the same price of oil.

I think about that addiction a lot these days, because I think both its existence and its end will come to define who we are as people here in the early 21st century. I think about it mostly because I wonder how any of us are going to succeed at providing for ourselves–and I’m not talking about whether or not the internet will still work or whether we’ll have cell phones, but whether we’ll be able to feed, clothe, shelter and protect ourselves–once the oil’s gone.

For me, this point is driven home by our precarious food system. Right now, virtually every part of the process most people depend on to feed themselves depends on oil to work, yet most people don’t even understand that it is true.

If we start with, say, seed corn produced to plant, the seed itself is already so laden with oil from the previous year that it’s kind of amazing it even exists, but for my purposes here, I will concentrate on this year. Most seed corn is grown hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles from where it is planted, so oil fueled, lubricated, painted, and upholstered semis must haul it from where it has been stored on oil-based tires across oil-paved roads to get it to the seed salesman.

Often, the seed bags are printed with oil-based ink, as are the shiny sales brochures and the price sheets, along with the oil-based dies used in the hats that were shipped from somewhere in the far east in oil-powered cargo ships. Farmers come to get their seed and paraphernalia in pickups as oil fueled, painted, upholstered, and tired as their semi brethren across similarly oil-paved roads.

Once back at the farm, the seed goes in the oil lubricated and painted planter, sometimes manufactured overseas and shipped to the States in oil-powered cargo ships and hauled on oil-powered locomotives and semis. But, before the farmer can use the planter, he must sometimes plow with his similarly oil-dependent plows using is oil-guzzling tractor, and then spray oil-based fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides using the same tractor.

Then, finally, he’ll actually plant, using the same oil-dependent tractor, followed by more spraying throughout the spring and summer, all dependent on oil to even exist, let alone happen.

When fall comes, the farmer will pull out his oil fueled, lubricated, painted, upholstered, and tired combine, shipped via oil from who knows where, to harvest the corn and dump it into his oil fueled, lubricated, painted and tired semi to haul it to the elevator where oil fueled, lubricated, and painted locomotives will haul it to processing facilities where the corn will be rendered into its constituent parts, then packaged and shipped by other oil fueled, lubricated, painted, upholstered, and tired semis across oil-paved roads to other factories where those parts will be combined into other oil-soaked parts into what most people think of as food.

And, it doesn’t end there, because then the food, as they call it, will be packaged in oil-based ink printed cardboard and loaded on yet other oil fueled, lubricated, painted, upholstered, and tired semis to be hauled across more oil-paved roads to warehouses stuffed full of oil-saturated goods from all over, to then be hauled again to your grocery of choice, once again using oil.

And we’re not done yet.

Because, you will get into your oil fueled, lubricated, painted, upholstered, and tired car and drive, sometimes quite a distance, to get to your oil-filled grocery to by your oil-based things you call food, but on the way home you’ll be so tired that it’ll just be easier to burn some extra oil waiting in the drive-through of your favorite oil-saturated fast food joint that was actually five extra miles out of the way.

When you finally get home to eat your oily food–let’s face it, even most of the carbon dioxide the corn plant used to make whatever part of the corn ended up in your food came from oil somewhere along the line–you’ll do so unironically in your house on your couch in front of your television watching cable all of which could not exist without the consumption of billions and billions of gallons of oil.

And to think that, just a little over a hundred years ago, most people had no idea what oil even was. Most of them lived on farms, still farmed with horses, and planted seed corn they grew the previous year using the same horses they fed with grass from their own pastures. They hauled their corn to the local market in wagons drawn by the same horses, and the people who came to buy it walked or rode horses themselves.

Now, I’m not saying we should go back to how things were a hundred years ago, but then again, I don’t have to, because the question that should be on everyone’s mind is how expensive oil has to get before we won’t be able to afford to do it any other way than the way they did it a hundred years ago. And how many people will be able to even do anything like that living in their suburbian sprawl, floating in a sea of oil they depend on everyday for their very survival, yet are so unaware of that the fact that they are probably sitting on, touching, eating, drinking, even exhaling oil right now that the idea would be a shock to them if they bothered to notice.

No, Americans aren’t addicted to oil, they’re consumed by it, and they have no idea what is going to happen to them when the oil runs out.