I was not present at the conversation that startled me out of my mind; in fact, I read it in a book, but we’ve all heard versions of this conversation hundreds of times. It’s a fact well established that Big Oil and Environmentalists are uneasy with one another. So the same old conversation between them is humming along, and then, just at the end, came the following, resigned, and perfectly extraordinary, remark, “Unfortunately, the environmentalists have limited resources and big oil has unlimited resources.” (1
This is such an outlandish statement that I actually gasped when I read it. Think about it for a moment. Big Oil has unlimited resources? What does it mean to have unlimited resources? I'm not just talking about copious resources, I'm talking about unlimited resources.
Everyone knows that Big Oil has lots of money. Even back in the days when gas was cheap, a producing oil well could generate over $1200 a minute for its owners. While the rest of the nation reeled from war in Iraq and a supposed decrease in oil supplies, ExxonMobil cashed in to realize a record $8.4 billion in profits during the first quarter of 2006 after a record $36 billion in 2005. Imagine if scarcity could make us all billionaires! Meanwhile, in the face of ExxonMobil’s profit. “Congress hastened to propose measures that would boost taxes on oil firms, open new areas to drilling and provide rebates to taxpayers but would not necessarily alter prices at the pumps.”(Washington Post, Friday, April 28, 2006) Even after destroying an entire ecosystem in Prince William Sound, ExxonMobil Oil wallows in wealth beyond an ordinary person’s ability to count. But is it unlimited? If it is, what does Big Oil know that none of the rest of us know? Has Big Oil discovered the Philosopher’s Stone? Are we in such awe of oil that we believe it is unshakable, unlimited, the wielder of endless, unbreakable power? Will heaven and earth pass away leaving only Big Oil alone in the universe? Is fuel the meaning of life in abundance? Can a fuel live forever?
There is something very wrong, even unhealthy, when we throw around talk about unlimited resources. The idea that somewhere there exist unlimited resources for the taking is what may be undergirding the strange American expectation that our Economy is forever: that in some godlike fashion it will keep growing year after year. We seem to forget that we are a consumer economy. We consume the energy of those who work for us. Each underpaid employee at Wal-Mart is expected to generate $3600 in profits to give to the wealthy owners. Big Oil is about extracting and burning. Fuels burn things up. When your economy is based upon burning things up, by its very nature, it cannot be unlimited, unless you plan to count the ashes at the end as gold.
Remember King Midas? Who loved gold so much that he turned his daughter into money? Somehow, Americans, even the lovers of the land, even those who would return to the earth, have become enthralled to Big Oil. They build summer houses and drive big cars. They fly all over the earth. One can be very moral, but if one has money, one will get into trouble. The temptations are just too great.
For millennia, the Gwich’in people of Alaska have lived off the land that Big Oil is now determined to exploit, supposedly in the name of creating jobs and incomes and livelihoods. Among the Gwich’in, stories, myths, are powerful instruments of truth. People receive their stories as they live their lives. My story is both my guide and my guardian along the unique path that is my lifeway. The wisdom that gives life is held in the words of the stories, and certain wise elders end up with many of them which they pass on as gift to those who need them. I cannot receive their stories because I am from another tribe. But I have learned from the Gwich’in that stories reveal things that other ways of knowing cannot. From the Gwich’in I have learned that Words are very powerful.
Knowing with the wisdom of the earth that oil is a deadly poison, that mother earth in her wisdom has hidden her poison among the rocks of the underworld, the Gwich’in seek only to preserve the life of the land that God has given them, the sacred grounds where the calves are born, the calves who will become the embodiment of wildness and freedom. Some will give their lives to become the wild food that gives good life. Others will lead the herd from the mountains to the sea. Others will become the caribou elders who pass on the wisdom that gives life. But Big Oil values money above life. Big Oil believes that Money gives life.
It is time to simply pause in the mad dash of getting from here to there and to ask whether Big Oil speaks truly.
1Jonathan Waterman, Where Mountains are Nameless, p. 152