From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.

Oil Heritage

I love optical illusions. Apart from the sheer fun of ambiguity, such illusions are really all about perspective. Shifting perspective can be one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s life. One of my more stalwart perspectives is that those who originate something deserve recognition. If that something is important, they may even deserve acclaim. And sometimes that thing may turn bad, in which case the discoverer may end up being notorious. Originality, the subject of bestsellers and media gurus, is sometimes the result of thinking differently than other people do. It can be cultivated and grown. Sometimes it’s simply fortuitous.

Every time I visit my own place of origins in western Pennsylvania, I think of the oil industry. It’s pretty hard not to around here. “Pumping jacks” still operate in some back yards, and petroleum tanks suddenly appear along beautiful rustic roads. The presence of fossil fuels isn’t as evident as it was when I was a child, for all the big refineries have closed down. Many of them have been dismantled. Still, I can’t drive by the site where a refinery fire glowed beyond the next hill from my childhood home and not wonder about it. Seeing those huge oil tanks melted and crumpled as if they’d been made of wax is an image that doesn’t get easily erased. Today, that’s all gone. Still, the oil industry itself was originally from this region. The auto industry—although increasingly electric—would’ve never started without the obvious boost that petroleum production gave transportation.

In the light, or perhaps dark, of Hurricane Harvey we’re set to see increasing gas prices. They will impact the economy in other ways, and energy giants will continue to degrade the environment in the quest for cheap and abundant crude. I’m not sure if that makes the discovery of oil in this region worthy of acclaim or notoriety. It does seem, from my perspective, that since big oil is so lucrative, a lifeline ought to exist for the struggling communities in my childhood home. Empty storefronts were rare here in my youth. Now they are almost as common as shops that remain open. I know; if people can’t move on, then maybe there’s a reason the economy is sagging. There are ghost towns in this area, and there may be more in the future. I just wonder how all this will looks from another perspective. Will it all be an illusion once electricity makes the past superfluous?

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.

Peak Oil

Having no control over where we’re born, people nevertheless often feel a connection with their native region. My family had no roots in western Pennsylvania, and the consensus on why we ended up here focuses around jobs. My grandparents settled here because of a job. While working here on a job my father, from the south, met my mother. My brothers and I all consider ourselves Pennsylvanians. One of the places we liked to visit as children was Drake Well. We knew that the oil industry began in western Pennsylvania, and we knew that famous people like George Washington had traveled through the region during the various wars of the nation’s early years. The towns where I grew up are not exactly affluent, and one of them seems in danger of becoming a ghost town. Drake Well, however, the birthplace of commercial oil, still draws visitors from the region and from around the country. On a recent visit to the site, I was interested to see how religion interplayed with petroleum in Victorian Era western Pennsylvania.

thumb_DSCN5064_1024

Among the displays was one showing the various means used to find oil. In the days before geological surveys, finding something hidden underground required more than just technical knowledge. More precisely, it often utilized different forms of technology—some scientific, some not. Dowsing was popular, and spirits were consulted. Access to the supernatural world was not uncommon. The oil industry really took off during the same era that spiritualism began to become popular. Religion and science co-existed in a way that is difficult to imagine today. Indeed, Drake Well was established in 1859, the same year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. The means used to reach the oil were, however, unabashedly scientific and technical. Nitroglycerin fatalities were just another fact of life.

Looking over the triumphal displays about fracking, it became clear that in the realm of petroleum production the spirit has made way for a technology with unknown consequences. The museum at Drake Well is pretty straightforward that other energy forms pose a threat to an industry that was, and currently remains, massive. We have technologies that can utilize cleaner forms of energy, but powerful oil interests have maintained the focus on more and more invasive ways to keep things going the way they are, pulling in more profits while the limited supply lasts. We know petroleum will run out. We’ve deeply integrated it into our way of life and instead of looking ahead to the next step, we’ve been reaching back to pad our fat pockets. Gone are the dowsers and spiritualists and in have charged the corporate executives. And in western Pennsylvania, the towns where the industry began struggle to stay alive as thinking that allowed for spirits has acquiesced to that which has loyalty to Mammon alone.

Are You Being Served?

Weary from a long day at work, I stepped off the bus last night to find the street to my house barricaded. That’s seldom a good sign. From the looks of the sludgy stains along the street, it was pretty clear that we were dealing with a water-main break. Sure enough, at home, no water. As I pondered making supper, washing dishes, and brushing my teeth—all that I usually have time for before going to bed—I wondered how I’d do any of them without water. As humans do, I managed. This morning I awoke to find the faucets still empty and considered the prospect of going to work with no shower, when a natural kind of grumpiness settled over me. We expect water. We take it for granted. For much of the world, however, lack of clean water is one of the largest problems faced. Showing up for work in a modern city with dirty hair hardly seems like a major issue when children are dying of diseases due to lack of potable water. Water is a justice issue.

Some experts have been positing that the next great war (as if there’s anything such as a great war) will not be over oil, but water. Politics aside, we know that western involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts comes down to petroleum. They have what we want. Better make some friends. But water is even more basic than oil. Scientists have discovered many odd creatures in extreme environments on this planet, and all share this quality: life can’t go on without water. Even the amazing tardigrade, able to survive a decade without water, will eventually die without it. People can barely make it a day or two. We have the technology to make clean water possible for many. Instead we wonder what’s taking them so long with the repairs this time, and my gosh, it’s time to go to work and I can’t even brush my teeth. It’s a sliding scale of fairness. The ethics of economy.

I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to need to head for the bus stop and await my fate. I live less than fifty miles from the ocean. All oceans are interconnected, covering a full three-fourths of our planet. With water we can’t drink. We emit our gases and melt our ice caps—some of the largest natural reservoirs of fresh water on the planet—thinking only of the joyous prospect of an overflowing bank account. What will we do, however, when we awake in the morning to find the water still off? Will we think of our fellow humans dying at this very moment for lack of life’s most basic necessity? Will we rush out to petition our leaders to ensure that safe water is provided to those without? Will we even remember this tomorrow? I know that like your average other guy I’ll find myself grumbling over the fact that I don’t have coffee, and it will seem that my petty world is suffering its own little apocalypse. And justice hasn’t been served.

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Global Warning

“Sticks and stones,” the childhood wisdom goes, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We were taught that little mantra as a response to being teased by bullies. But words can and do hurt. They can even be lethal. Although I’ve come to realize that specific words are inherently neither good nor bad, I’m still a little shy around some of them. The website known, euphemistically, as “IFL Science!” contains an f-bomb that sometimes makes me wary—what’s wrong with just regularly loving science? In any case, perhaps this adverbial use of the most versatile swear word is intended to make the website a bit of racy fun. The posts are often very good. So it was that I recently read a story about “Friends of Science.” This group, it seems, is paying good money to convince the scientifically illiterate that global warming is natural, caused by the sun and not emissions, and so we should just chill. IFL Science! points out that the group, however, receives money from petroleum companies. Sticks and stones.

450x436_q75

On my way to work this week, I noticed how many of the ads in ebullient, affluent Midtown Manhattan reflect dark shows and movies. It’s summertime, when we expect bright colors and sunny weather. Has it, perhaps, been too sunny? The best selling non-fiction book over the past few weeks has been on economic inequality and how it will lead to a good, old-fashioned primate crash. Going ape-crap on the bullies. Our species doesn’t tolerate radical unfairness for long. Those who suck money from under the ground may not fracking care about the rest of us, but they sure pull in the big money. Big enough to buy the truth. Our emissions, they seem to say, don’t stink. And that weird weather you’ve been noticing for the past decade or so? That’s normal. Words will never harm me.

Global warming is a reality.

Oligarchy comes in many forms, the most insidious of which is the benign overlord. The implied subtext is “if I am smart enough to make all this money, I must surely be smart enough to decide what’s best for everyone.” Call it the gold standard of hypocrisy. In an increasingly secular society where the rewards of heaven devolve to what we can grab on earth, this might even be called a kind of theology. We all know that public policy and federal laws can be purchased, if we call it lobbying. Or election fund donations. The truth it seems, is up for sale. Call it Friends of Science—the name says it all. And if we’re tempted to add our own epithets, it might pay to ask what harm can words really do?

After the Gold Rush

The morning I flew to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, the headlines in the morning paper were about the rocket attacks in Tel Aviv. Ironically, the in-flight magazine cover on United, I noticed as I fastened by seat belt securely low across my waist, read “Three Perfect Days in Tel Aviv.” The irony wasn’t so much funny as it was sad. The situation in the Middle East is hopelessly entangled, but it all comes down to our obsession with dividing people into groups. Religious, ethnic, social: somehow we are not like them. We’re better, superior in some way. It matters not that proving superiority is a purely subjective enterprise. After all, we just know it. When history places one persecuted group in a position of persecuting another group, well, I’m afraid we all know what happens.

The problems in the Middle East are largely biblical and predominantly petroleum-based. Even those who tend to read the Bible figuratively can see a land claim based on an Abraham who probably never existed as strangely literal. Especially when there’s oil in them thar wells. Isolationism served the United States well until it was discovered that they had more black gold than even Texas does. Establishing a foothold in the region was not such a subtle policy; the x-ray vision of politicians funded by heavy industry saw beneath the sandy soil to the real deity that lay beneath. Dig a well, hit a gusher, and, like the Bible says, “he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Good news for modern capitalists. But some people will have to die.

As I sat in the lobby of a posh hotel, waiting for an appointment, I heard a fragment of a conversation as a couple of scholars rushed by. They were discussing the aftermath of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. One suggested to the other, in the context of how many Palestinians might die in retaliation, “well, if they can keep the numbers down…” and then they were gone. My mind jumped to The Prisoner. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” crashed in my head with the way that the dead in the Middle East are piled up as “the numbers.” I’m sure it was only intended as a convenient turn of phrase. Outside the hotel lobby the striking workers from the Hyatt labor disputes were protesting in a cold, crisp Chicago morning. They were soon cleared away. My fear, Number Six, is that you are wrong. We are all numbers, even the best of us.