Perhaps some of you have heard the statement by environmental groups, “Keep it in the ground,” referring to oil and natural gas. So let's examine the feasibility of achieving that goal here in rural Minnesota.
Historically, some of us remember a time when we used very little oil. In the 1940s and 1950s, a small amount of kerosene for lights and some gas and oil for cars and tractors was the extent of our use of oil. But in the intervening years, our use of oil and gas has become an essential ingredient of almost every aspect of our lives.
Because the use of oil in many areas is subtle, let's review some of the ways our lives are dependent on oil. The two most obvious ones are for transportation and heating. Our increased use of gasoline and diesel is, not only because we drive more, but also because the products we buy are frequently shipped thousands of miles to get to us.
A surprising use of oil is in the manufacture of clothing and accessories. Much of our clothing contains polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, fleece, etc., which is made from oil. Producing plastic-based fibers for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year.
Many accessories, including purses, belts, shoes, gloves and hats, that are produced from “man-made” materials, are derived from oil.
By far our largest contact with products made from oil comes in the form of plastics. Plastic items are literally everywhere and, if the item is not made of plastic, chances are the packaging is made of plastic. About 8% to 10% of our total oil supply goes to making plastic and approximately 12 million barrels of oil a year are used in making plastic bags in the U.S.
General categories of plastic items we come in contact with include packaging (bottles, containers/totes, clear plastic wrap, disposable Styrofoam containers, packing material, tape), electronic equipment, sports equipment (everything from ear plugs to boats), toys, kitchen appliances, plastic food containers and tableware.
And there is also plastic in places we don’t see or expect it. The inside of soup cans, milk cartons and metal bottle lids are lined with a thin layer of plastic. Most teabags and coffee pods contain plastic. Additionally, glitter and chewing gum are made from plastic.
Oil is also used in the manufacture of drugs, health and beauty aids, household and farm chemicals and medical devices. Many common drugs, like aspirin, antihistamine and hydrocortisone, are made from oil. Health and beauty aids, such as deodorant, nail polish, shaving cream, hand lotion and cold cream, are made from oil.
Medical devices, from eyeglasses and hearing aids, to heart valves and artificial limbs, are made from oil. Many chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, are derived from oil.
The construction industry depends on many building materials made from oil, including windows, roofing shingles, Styrofoam, spray foam insulation, caulk, linoleum, vapor barriers and electrical receptacles, to name a few.
For several years here at Balsam Moon we have attempted to reduce our use of products derived from oil and feel we are making some progress. We decided to see how dependent we still were by doing an inventory of oil-based materials inside our house. After a long, and less than fun, process we found 6,019 items derived from oil.
Our conclusion is that immediately eliminating oil from our lives would drastically alter the way we live and conduct business and is not realistic. Alternatively, the reserves of oil and natural gas remaining in the ground are limited and are costly to extract, especially when including environmental costs.
So, to continue to consume oil and gas at an ever-increasing rate is irresponsible at best. To assume that we are entitled to use oil in the form of plastic straws, bags and Styrofoam containers and deprive our great-grandchildren of oil they might need to make heart valves or essential medicines is, in our opinion, shortsighted, selfish and even cruel.
And, to think that human ingenuity will develop new products to replace oil when supplies run out is simply gambling with our children’s future.
We believe that a responsible approach is for each of us to substantially reduce our use of oil and oil-derived products day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by–year.
Future columns will discuss how we can do that (but don’t wait; you can start now).
(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.