Unperturbed by the children’s restless murmuring, Olive and Petra begin their routine. Slowly raising the lid of the gigantic box between them, they turn to face the class. ‘Welcome,’ they intone together with well-rehearsed awe, ‘to the magic suitcase.’
One by one, the two women lift an improbable alphabet of products out from the case – Aspirin, balloons, candles, dentures, an electric blanket, a fishing rod, golf balls, hair dye, insect repellent, jet fuel, kerosene, lipstick, a mop, nail polish…‘Can anyone tell me what connects these objects?’ Olive asks. Petra meanwhile reaches back into the box, pulling out office stationery, piano keys, quoits, rubber cement, a surfboard, a toilet seat, an umbrella, vitamin capsules, water skis, a xerox machine, a yoghurt pot. Finally (at last impressing the jaded class), a miniature Zeppelin floats silently up from the depths of the box.
As the children’s eyes follow the diminutive dirigible up towards the strip lighting, Olive steps forth. ‘The answer,’ she gushes proudly, ‘is that all these products are made with OIL.’
Olive and Petra, and many hundreds like them, work for a Desk and Derrick club. The Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs was set up in 1957 with a mission to ‘enhance and foster a positive image to the global community by promoting the contribution of the petroleum, energy and allied industries through education, by using all resources available’. And how does it do this? The promotional literature makes it clear. Like the better known sisters of Avon, Ann Summers and Aloe Vera, Desk and Derrick clubs rely on ‘the undaunted efforts of a group of determined women’.
As the women explain to classes and boardrooms across the US and Canada, the human race is dependent upon oil to a scale that few people appreciate. We are all aware of the petrol we put in our cars, and the electricity that powers our lives. Many of us realise that the plastics of which so much is made, and in which even more products are wrapped, comes originally from oil. A committed few even make choices on this knowledge – from returning excess packaging to supermarkets to refusing to put Esso’s belligerent tiger in their tank. But hardly any of us really understand the extent to which oil seeps into our lives. This is the great magic trick of the global economy, far greater than the oleaginous cornucopia contained within Olive and Petra’s suitcase. It is the trick of making the real costs disappear.
Of course it is not really magic as such, but an illusion. We see what we want to see; or, to be more precise, we don’t see what the magicians don’t want us to see. Unfortunately, the members of this particular magic circle are the richest men in the world – men who control most of its resources, politicians and, by extension, us.
Trick or treat?
Here’s a simple trick you can try at home. Take an apple, any apple. Look at it, turn it over in your hands. Close your eyes and visualise the apple growing on a tree far, far away. As the apple grows it is repeatedly sprayed with toxic pesticides (most of which are derived from oil) by a man using machinery made at least in part of plastic, who wears PVC gloves, plastic goggles and protective nylon clothing.
Once picked, the apple has to travel – by air, sea or land – to the store from where it will be sold. Whatever the means of transport, it is propelled by oil, which all the while pollutes the atmosphere in which the apple grew. Once at the store the apple may well be packaged in polythene, polystyrene, or some other oil derivative, for presentation on the shelf. The shelf too is plastic. The basket you carry the apple in is often plastic; the card you swipe at the till, the ‘rubber’ of the conveyor belt, the nylon clothing of the cashier, the bags you put your shopping in – all plastic. Driving home in your car (look at the dashboard, the seats, the seat belts, the carpet, the steering wheel, the fibreglass body), you emit yet more pollution into the air.
Finally, you arrive home, sit back and bite into your apple – a valuable part of the five daily pieces of fruit and vegetables needed to keep the doctors, for now at least, away.
It was not always this way. Although, ever since its discovery we have exploited oil in every way we can. Ancient Egyptians coated their mummies in it to preserve them. They are also said to have paved their roads with asphalt. A Roman general smeared pigs in oil and, having ignited them, drove them into an enemy camp. According to the Babylonians, Noah used pitch to caulk the Ark. And by the third century BC the Chinese were filtering oil through cloth to use the end product as a balm for their skin.
Now we are fast becoming not the cybernetic android so beloved of dystopian sci-fi, but his cheaper, plasticky cousin. Unhappy with our looks, we enhance our breasts, calfs and pecs with plastic. Embarrassed by our baldness, we weave nylon fibres into our denuded scalps. Unable to hear?-Plastic ear piece. Short of sight, or just unhappy with the colour of your iris? Slip in a contact lens. Didn’t brush your teeth with the oil-based toothpaste on your plastic tootbrush with its nylon bristles? Not to worry, we’ve got plastic dentures so like the real thing no one need ever know. And if your heart should slow, your limbs weaken or your bladder begin to take on a will of its own, then sit back as the plastic pacemakers, prosthetics and catheter tubes take over.
The world we are moulded into today was born in the 1920s with the development of the petrochemical industry. Manufacturers took advantage of the abundance of hydrocarbons at petroleum refineries to develop the raw materials for the plastinated luxuries we now ‘need’.
Notably, this was at the same time (and thanks mainly to the same people who developed the plastics industry) that the only product to have more uses than oil, but with none of the toxic side effects, was banned. That product was hemp – the oil of which can drive cars, create plastics or be made into soap, the fibres of which can be turned into paper or clothes, and the seed of which is one of the most nutritious substances known. (Oh, and growing hemp counterracts climate change, too.)
Thanks, however, to the efforts of DuPont and William Randolph Hearst (with their respective vested interests in the plastics and paper industries), the use of hemp (which one would have to smoke around three tonnes of to get high) was outlawed, along with its more potent sister marijuana, under drug prohibition laws.
In place of the drug that was not a drug, we drill ever deeper into the veins of the earth. We pull the oil up not with syringes, but with derricks (named after an infamous 17th century hangman because of their resemblance to gallows). We cannot imagine a world without oil, deny the possibility of weaning ourselves off it, and will break the law – and even kill – to ensure a constant, cheap supply of the stuff. We are, every single one of us, addicted to oil.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2003