The Ecology of Fossil Fuels

Posted January 30th, 2015 in Blog, Featured, Zine Comments Off on The Ecology of Fossil Fuels

They have one, a web of interconnection, intricate, complex, ubiquitous, supporting an economy and ways of life all around the world.

We tend to think of the word in the sense of the biological community, the interrelationships among organisms and their environment, patterns and behaviors among living beings and the non-sentient world. That is the scientific meaning of the word.

There is also human ecology, which Merriam-Webster defines as: “a branch of sociology dealing especially with the spatial and temporal interrelationships between humans and their economic, social, and political organization.”

Fracking pipelines getting connected in the fields of Western PA. Photo: M Swedish

Fracking pipelines getting connected in the fields of Western PA. Photo: M Swedish

The fossil fuel economy has an ecology, both biological and intensely human – a complex set of interconnections, a web of energy extraction, production, and delivery, that in just the past 200 years (since the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine was developed) gave us a world in which we humans have become voracious consumers living lives of unimaginable convenience, comfort, and wealth (unless you are among the majority of the world that is still poor or extremely poor). Just look at what we have built in that incredibly brief amount of time! And that industrial civilization is directly responsible for a rise in global population that is literally consuming the world, from less than 1.2 billion humans in 1850 to 2.4 billion in 1949, the year I was born, to more than 7.2 billion today. That rise is in tandem with the rise of petroluem-driven industrialization (remember that petroleum is made up of ancient organic matter, part of the planet’s biological evolution).

World population growth graph by Scott Manning

World population growth graph by Scott Manning

And we wonder why we feel our lives reeling  with change… This not only has not stopped, but the process is fully underway and accelerating at great speed.

It is stunning to me that this never, ever comes up when we hear news of the happenings of our world, how this expansion of the human species, enabled by industrialization (which means by new forms of energy), changed everything, made everything unstable and subject to constant change and upheaval – from the neighborhoods of our childhood, the old familiar streets and parks, the traffic, the crowds that annoy us, the air pollution, the deterioration of Nature, and on and on.

The way we can no longer hold onto our old little worlds with our own languages and cultures, safe from “the other” or “others,” safely enclosed among those my parent’s generation called “our own.”

Oil made this possible. Oil is the foundation of this world busting at the seams with increasingly unbearable tensions. We went at it with passion and conviction, creating wealth and, along with that, feeding its oldest and dearest companions – greed and power – now with tools and weapons beyond anything humans have ever known – from spears and axes and swords and cannonballs to rockets and drones and robots and weapons of mass destruction.

Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Oil, coal, and now gas, fed the rise of this industrial civilization. And as population grew in tandem with manufacturing prowess, along with mass forms of industrial agriculture, and the ability to transport the goods and stuff of industry all over the planet, the infrastructure of that fossil fueled world spread its tentacles, every oil and gas well, every pumpjack, millions and millions of them, connected with pipelines and serviced at refineries and sent through more pipelines or by rail or truck to factories, city buildings, every single family home, and across oceans in massive tanker ships.

An ecology, a web of interconnections not only of its own material production and infrastructure, but in interrelationship with the deepest most intimate parts of our lives, everything we consume, every drop of oil or cubic inch of natural gas, every bit of coal rock blasted away from mountains and burned in our energy plants, every atom of uranium mined from Mother Earth and split to make electricity.

View into Hell - Kern River. Source: Wikipedia Commons

View into Hell: a vast field of pumpjacks in CA. Source: Wikipedia Commons


We turn the light switch to “on”, we are part of that ecology. We eat, we drink, we buy shampoo and soap, we go to the gym, we drive to work, we fly to the other side of the world, and we are part of that ecology.

In a way I had never intended or planned, I have spent much of the past 18 months engaging deep immersion into the ecology of fossil fuels. I was led there by the work I do – inevitably, it led me there. The more I did this work, the more I needed to understand, and the more I searched to understand, the more the road led me there.

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

Beginning with my 2-week Athabasca River Pilgrimage in September 2013, the trip that took me along that magnificent river and boreal forest to the tar sands industrial site in Alberta, then learning about the pipelines and tanker car trains that bring that gooey stuff that becomes synthetic crude oil, or the sweet crude of the Bakken oil play, across the Upper Midwest and right through the State of Wisconsin where I live, to my toxic tour last fall of the BP refinery in NW Indiana where the tar sands goo comes to be refined, to my first immersion into the reality of fracking in Western PA just the other week – I have been having a deep immersion into this ecology, all of it interconnected, all of it empowering this global economy, all of it deeply embedded in our lives…

And I have been more than a little overwhelmed by it all. You know, it never occurred to me that one day I would be talking about the flash point of the oil in the tanker trains that ended up exploding in Lac-Mégantic and Alabama and North Dakota and New Brunswick, or could name the toxic chemicals involved in fracking with such seeming expertise, or know why DOT-111 oil tanker cars should be taken out of service immediately, and the meaning of the red 1267 placard on oil tanker trains.crude oil rail placard

But there it is. That’s one of the essential stories of our time, and if we don’t perceive this ecology correctly and the nature of the threat it now poses, there is another kind of ecology, the kind that holds us not in the ways of life we have become so used to, but in life itself, that could unravel catastrophically.

And that’s why this work feels so urgent.

BP's giant coker and hydrotreater, Whiting IN. Photo credit: Margaret Swedish

BP’s giant coker and hydrotreater, Whiting IN. Photo credit: Margaret Swedish

On Thursday, Jan 29, I spoke to a small class of students taking a course on ecology and society at Carroll University in Waukesha WI. I had been asked to do my presentation on the Alberta tar sands, and all the repercussions and connections that have followed from that industrial project. I brought with me my new firsthand knowledge of the massive BP refinery on the Lake Michigan shores in Whiting IN where tar sands dilbit is being refined and then sent on for more refining and then exported to other parts of the world, and made the connections with the Bakken oil shale play and the frenzied fracking industry that is like a massive invasion of post-apocalyptic machines spreading across much of the country, a virus without a cure.

Well, the stories and photos and graphs are pretty overwhelming and these young people were stunned, angered, appalled. One of them began to cry. By the end, she had buried her face in her hands and openly wept. I felt guilty at first, like maybe it was too much too fast. And then I thought – what hope there is in those tears! How refreshing it was to see someone so moved by the disaster, so grief-stricken by what we humans are doing, that she could weep.

Athabasca River flowing through Alberta's boreal forest. Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

And then there’s the ecology of LIFE. Athabasca River flowing through Alberta’s boreal forest. Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

Would that more humans, especially those who have lived so well off this way of life, could come to such sorrow. When we find it hard to live with ourselves anymore, maybe we will find what we need to change this – before it is too late, while we still have the capacity and the skills to start creating the necessary new ways of life.

The new ecology that will emerge from this disastrous late stage of industrial capitalism, if we are willing to let go the death-spiral of the fossil fuels ecology, will not look at all like this one, and it will take a long time for us to create it. Who will shape that future? That’s a critical question because right now it is being shaped by the likes of fossil fuel billionaires (e.g., the infamous Koch brothers and their political minions) and enormous financial institutions that do not have the interests of the living systems of the planet, nor the fate of the masses of people in this world, at heart – to say the least.

A new life-giving and life-sustaining ecology will require learning how to work again with the Earth, partnering with its dynamic energies, its beautiful limits and magnificent potential for healing and renewal. It will mean ending forever the ideology of human dominion over Nature, of seeing Earth as belonging to us for our use, rather than a web that holds us delicately within the fabric of the whole, or, to be poetic, within its evolutionary embrace. Instead of tearing it up for our use, we will be bowing down in sorrow and in gratitude, shocked at what we have done, prepared for the real work of atonement for the grievous wounds we have inflicted.

This will be one of the themes of our work now – the ecology of fossil fuels v the ecology of a living planet. We have arrived now at the point of realization that we cannot have both. Which one will we choose?


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