Oil and Ecological Hope

Posted October 3rd, 2013 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

They don’t really go together, do they? One cancels out the other. That’s what we’ve come to. That’s the moment in which we humans are living now. We have to decide which direction we’re going in.


Syncrude: one of Canada’s oil giants

And that is not as easy as buying a new car or light bulb or spending less time and money shopping for stuff. As they pointed out at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray – oil is not just in our cars. It’s also in our toothpaste and the toothpaste tube. It’s not only in the gas tank but in the factories, the materials, the transport, and the car dealerships that brought you that car. It’s in all the highways and streets constructed for you to get around in that car, and it’s in the construction equipment that built those highways and streets. It’s not only the fuel in the jet engines, but all that material used to build the jets and the hangers and airports so that we can travel all over the place with luggage that required oil in order to be made and then shipped to the mall where you bought it.

It’s in the food you eat when it is shipped from California to New York City, from Mexico, or other exotic places – like quinoa from South America that has undermined and threatened the food security of Bolivians. It’s in the poison people put on their lawns, and the trucks that bring the poisons and the hoses used to spray it. It’s in the vast amounts of fertilizers used by industrial agriculture that are ruining the world’s soil and the streams and rivers into which it washes off, and it’s in the gas tanks of the huge farm machines, and it’s in the materials and manufacturing of those machines.

Well, you get my point. You see what I’m getting at. This choice is not so easy, the one between oil and hope.

So when people try to tell you that there is some easy way through this crisis, by putting another kind of fuel in the gas tank, or switching to hybrids and plug-ins, or using squiggly light bulbs, don’t believe them. We are not going to get off that easy. Yes, we absolutely must reduce our consumption of things and comforts and energy and the resources of this precious planet that we are using up to create these wholly unsustainable lifestyles. We must learn to live simply, need less, stay home more, buy local and seasonal – all those things are necessary. But they are not enough to slow down the drivers of global warming at the scale required to stave off what some journalists write in rather stark terms, like Eric Holthaus in The Altantic, an article entitled aptly, “We Are Terrifyingly Close to the Climate’s ‘Point of No Return'”:

TRAVELFor the first time, the report mentioned projections of climate change beyond 2100 and painted a picture of a bleak world, possibly unrecognizable to those living today, should fossil fuel use continue on its current trajectory.

We have arrived at this point by way of oil, the once seemingly endless supply of goo left behind by old life forms millions of years ago and which burns so perfectly that it could fuel this whole industrial age. Here’s what the old industrialists didn’t know was a problem of all production and consumption done on this planet – it has an invisible waste product called CO2, and too much of it will cook the atmosphere, change its chemical imbalance, and set off a chain of events that results in things like what we witnessed at the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, and the recent floods in Colorado, and the aridification of our southwestern states (Mexico, too, as climate change knows no borders). [For more on the growing global threat of drought and aridification, check out this article from Nature, “The Dry Facts.”]

What I learned in Alberta in ways so powerful that it continues to disturb my sleep and haunt my days is that these two things really do cancel each other out. We are in the latter days of the industrial age’s “Great Contradiction,” and we have to figure out how we are going to resolve it.

And right now, oil is winning.TRAVEL

The new Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has made clearer than ever the stakes involved if we don’t move the resolution of this contradiction in the other direction. These warnings come at the same time as human demand on the planet’s resources (gifts, really) are rising exponentially. Water and oil are said not to go together, but that’s not true in this case. Rising demand for, extraction of, processing and consumption of oil are all intimately related to water as all of those things require enormous amounts of what has become a dwindling supply – of water – let me repeat that – a dwindling supply of water to meet the most basic human needs.

Climate change that is drying out parts of our world and melting glaciers, a key source of fresh water in places like the Himalayas and South America’s tropical mountain ranges, is part of this looming crisis. Another is that we are simply using too much of it in industrial processes that include agriculture, vast human developments, the making of computer chips, the cooling of vast internet data centers…and the extraction and processing of oil, natural gas, and coal.

Where the Columbia Icefield glacier was just 30 years ago.

Where the Columbia Icefield glacier was just 30 years ago.

Here’s a brief look at what we’re facing in this country alone, from CommonDreams: “As Planet Warms, US Watersheds Go Thirsty: Nearly 1 in 10 watersheds have out-stripped water supply, with trend expected to worsen as climate heats up.

It was stunning to me last time I traveled to Colorado’s front range, the foothills and all, to see what had happened since the years I lived there, the massive encroachment of humans and housing and business and shopping malls and air pollution and traffic – even though anyone who looks for the info can find out that the aquifers are being quickly depleted. Doesn’t stop us, does it?

Are we more likely to switch from oil to ecological hope anytime soon, any more than we are prepared to stop development where there is not the water to support it?

…because the time to begin that switch was decades ago, when there was still time to do it with the least amount of chaos and suffering, when the aquifers and glaciers and Arctic ice sheets and the plankton and the chemical make-up of the atmosphere were still relatively stable.

We’ve known for a long time that we needed to make this change. The new industrialists know this now, despite what they say publicly. There are no more excuses, even the one that accurately predicts economic chaos when we go off oil. If will be difficult, for sure; we waited too long, but it still must be done with as much justice and equity and compassion as possible.

If we don’t leave most of the carbon still in the ground in the ground, we’re in big trouble.

Up in Alberta, federal and provincial governments are determined to get it all out of the ground, to destroy forests and rivers and soils and watersheds in order to get it all out of the ground for us to burn, the fuel of the engine of our global economy. They are like the tobacco companies after they all knew that smoking could kill you, but buried the data, lied, and continued to churn out cigarettes, often doctored to make them even more addictive. The oil industry is this, but on a much vaster scale – because to save ourselves from tobacco smoke we could ban cigarettes from public places and do massive education and medical assistance to quit. But how are you going to quit the effects of global warming?

The world we don't want to ruin.

The world we don’t want to ruin.

Here’s the deal, friends. We have to start making the switch from oil to ecological  hope in a big hurry. And that’s going to take some great commitment on our part – to shifting the culture that feeds the drug to us as if our lives depend on it rather than are threatened by it. I don’t want to pass on a bleak world to the little ones being born today. And while things are going to get pretty bad, really challenging, we can show them that it is possible to live differently, in a more fulfilling and meaningful way, in a way that gives our lives great meaning, and even have some real joy and fun in the meantime, as we work our way through this difficult era.

I look at what is happening to our democracy and know that we are making things even more difficult by destroying the most important political tools for this work – a democracy that functions, a government that is free of corporate money so it can make good decisions, and a media not bought as entertainment for ideological shrieking matches. Most of our cultural, educational, and religious institutions are failing us in this regard as well, fearful of the responses they will get from their constituencies if they take a strong moral stand.

None of this should hold us back from the New Creation that humans need to start constructing to get back into balance with nature, with the earth community that holds us and nurtures us, and which we often violate like an abusive domestic partner. The abusive partner has taken about all the abuse it can handle and it is starting to respond big time.

Oil and ecological hope. Oil OR ecological hope. It is time to start sliding the scale from one end to the other.


Another great resource, this concise, clear, compelling report from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. The title sounds boring, but the report is NOT!


Finally, if you can help support this project with a donation just now, we sure can use it! And thanks!little light blue logo - very tiny


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2 Responses

  1. Paul Thompson


    I am a friend of Bethany and Rodney’s through our love of Frisbee and building a friendly, loving community.

    Your report is powerful and invitational…Cool Planet, MN350 and Citizens Climate Lobby are working to make taking action for climate solutions a #1 priority and how to reach the persuadable middle Americans and other global citizens to do more than vote by shifting political will towards smart, sensible policies to preserve and protect as we build our new future.

    Can we talk soon?

    My # is 952-920-1547 in Edina MN and I’d love to connect you with madaleine para our national program co-ordinator in madison.

    all the best

    moving towards connection and wholeness,

    Paul Thompson
    Cool Planet MN .org
    Citizens Climate Lobby.org

  2. Margaret

    Will call. Was a bit reluctant to approve the comment with your phone number in it. Let me know if you are concerned and I can “unapprove” it.

    Look forward to making the connection…