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Yabadabadoo: Putting Fossil Fuels into Perspective

Meet the Fossils
“Yabadabadoo!” This entry in an online urban dictionary refers, among other things, to leaving work early and disregarding the status of any project that currently needs attention. It comes from a popular cartoon in the 1960s that featured the Flintstone family and their neighbors, the Rubbles. Fred and Wilma Flintstone lived in the town of Bedrock with their daughter Pebbles, and were heralded as a “modern stone age family.” The highlight of Fred’s job at the Slate Rock and Gravel Company is when a bird roars to signal the end to the workday. With a “Yabba Dabba Doo,” he heads home to his family in a foot-powered Flintstone Mobile.

Now imagine a similar cartoon in the 2100s – one that features the Fossil family and their neighbors, the Frackers. The lives of these modern oil-age families revolve around energy intensive activities and consumption that are powered by oil, gas and coal. The Fossil Mobile is an SUV with a fuel economy of 6 km/liter. The Fossil family’s carbon footprint is 20 metric tons of CO2.

Future generations are likely to look back on the Fossil Age and wonder why we could not see that we actually lived in a world full of connectivity, meaning, and energy.

Viewers are likely to look back at “the fossil era” with incredulous wonder as they try to imagine the prevailing logic, mindsets and social norms of the time. How could they have burned fossil fuels to move around, when there were so many alternatives? Why did they consume so much? Especially when it was well understood that fossil fuels were contributing to climate change. And surely they realized that hydrocarbons were a valuable resource that could be used in hundreds of sustainable ways, including to create plasmas to store solar energy. What were the Fossils thinking?

A Retrospective on Fossils
To understand the current perspective on oil, it helps to look at it within its historical context. Let’s travel back in time to look at fossil fuels from the perspective of a geography student in 1900. We will look at the Carpenter’s Geographical Reader for North America – one of the standard geography texts in American schools at the beginning of the 20th century. This book, which was one in a series of regional geographies, aimed “to give its readers a living knowledge of some of the wonders of the country and continent in which they live” (Carpenter 1898, p. 5).

To put this in an historical context, Frank G. Carpenter’s geography book was published in 1898, almost 20 years after Carl Benz invented the first gasoline-powered vehicle – a “horseless carriage” that would transform the world of mobility. It was published 40 years after the first oil well was sunk in Titusville, Pennsylvania. This was a time when atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were about 295 ppm, compared to 406 ppm in 2017 (sealevel.info). It was also two years after Svante Arrhenius used the principles of physical chemistry to calculate the extent to which CO2 would increase the Earth’s surface temperature, resulting in a “hot house” effect that is now recognized by almost all climate scientists as contributing to global warming and climate destabilization.

A chapter called Travels in the Oil Regions takes us around the oil fields of the United States, including Titusville. Carpenter describes the emerging infrastructure for producing, transporting and storing “coal oil”: “There are pipes covering the land like a network, which carry the oil here and there. The very earth seems greasy, and the streams are coated with the steel-blue skum of petroleum.” (p. 203).

He recalls that prior to 1858, no one realized that there were enormous quantities of oil under the ground: “Most people used candles of tallow or wax, or little wicks floating in saucers of tallow or sperm oil, for light.” (p. 203). Historically called rock oil, he mentions that Indians had used it for medicine: “It was supposed to be good for rheumatism and sore throat, and to make hair grow.” (p. 204)

Could they not see the potential for tidal power, hydrogen power, magma power, nuclear waste power, embeddable solar power, algae power, flying wind power, fusion power, space-based solar, and not the least, human power?

As a new resource, petroleum was thought to be of very little value. Carpenter describes how some wells were sunk just for the novelty of seeing the oil spout up into the air: “Tens of thousands of barrels of the crude oil were allowed to flow into the creeks and rivers, for no one had yet learned to utilize it.” (p. 205)

This period did not, however, last long, and once someone developed a method for refining oil to remove its impurities, it was discovered that oil could be burned in lamps. It gave a better light than other oils — and produced no smoke. But over time it was discovered that oil could be used for more than kerosene: “It is now used for making gasoline and illuminating gas; and a great deal is manufactured into benzene and used in the making of India rubber and rubber goods…. Indeed, it is said that two hundred important products are made from crude petroleum.” (p. 206). Today, one hundred and twenty years later, there are an estimated 6000 uses for fossil fuels.

As we look back on this historical example, it becomes clear that our understanding of the potential uses of fossil fuels has changed over time. How will people think about fossil fuels in the future? Probably very differently from today. Sure, they will understand that the energy return on investment for fossil fuels was much higher at the time, but they will also point out that fossil fuels were also highly subsidized. They will recognize the geopolitics of fossil fuel, but will be curious as to why the geopolitics of sea level rise was ignored. They will comprehend the quest for energy security, yet be amazed that it was not directly linked to human security and the wellbeing of species and ecosystems. They will shake their heads when they consider the vested interests and cynicism that promoted misinformation about climate change, and be amazed that people could not see right through it and draw conclusions based on evidence rather than argument.

The Future of Fossils
Cartoon characters in 2100 will probably parody 21st Century thinking. The Fossils and the Frackers represent a continuation of development patterns laid out in Carpenter’s geography of fossil fuels, built on ideas of continued economic growth, technological progress, and unlimited consumption. In contrast to the Flintstones and the Rubbles, the oil-age families seldom interact, except to compare their latest gadgets and acquisitions. They are constantly busy, searching for the next experience to satisfy a deep craving for meaning. The negative side effects or “externalities” of fossil fuels are problematized in every episode through climate change impacts, air pollution, plastic pollution, marine pollution, alienation of lands from indigenous groups, species extinctions and so on. However, this is never interesting to the Fossils and Frackers, as their attention is focused on a perpetual search for something — anything — to make life feel meaningful.

Future generations are likely to look back on the Fossil Age and wonder why we could not see that we actually lived in a world full of connectivity, meaning, and energy. Why were people blind to the many alternatives to fossil fuels, beyond the traditional options of solar, wind, hydro, biomass and nuclear energy? Could they not see the potential for tidal power, hydrogen power, magma power, nuclear waste power, embeddable solar power, algae power, flying wind power, fusion power, space-based solar, and not the least, human power? Future generations will also be amazed that we actually burned hydrocarbons, when in fact were valuable for so many other uses. How could they failed to anticipate the hundreds of environmentally-friendly uses, including their capacity to form plasmas that serve as batteries to store energy from the sun? Just as few people in the 19th century could have anticipated the thousands of products that would eventually be derived from fossil fuels, including refrigerators, toothpaste, fleece, umbrellas and shampoo, few people in the beginning of the 21st century could see that the real value in fossil fuels was not in combustion or plastics, but in conservation. It did not occur to them that keeping fossil fuel resources in the ground represented nature’s ingenious method of carbon capture and storage.

Present-day Choices
Vision is always clearer in retrospect. Looking back, it is easy to see collective blind spots and identify critical points where pathways diverged to follow one route rather than another. Looking forward, it is easy to extrapolate the world that we see today into the future, as if it were inevitable. Yet it is important to remember that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift. The fossil fuel era marks a unique era in human history where the paradigm of fragmentation and separation gave rise to one of connectivity, entanglement and meaning. The paradigm shift is coming about through a combination of reflexivity, critical thinking, and imagination. Just as the Flintstone’s world did not end for lack of stones, the Fossil’s world will not end by running out of fossil fuels. It will end when we illuminate our blind spots and see the potentials that are right here in front of us. While it may be tempting to shout “Yabadabadoo” and ignore the problem, there is work to be done. The future is waiting for us.

This article was first published in Samfunnsgeograffen (2018) A28, N1, p28.   PDF   HTML

Frank G. Carpenter, 1898. Carpenter’s Geographical Reader: North America. New York: American Book Company.


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