My father didn’t know what an engineer was until he arrived at Oklahoma State University for spring testing his senior year of high school. When they saw his math scores, they said he should major in engineering. “I heard that and thought that was someone who drove trains,” he told me. But he listened to their advice, picked chemical engineering, stayed on another year after undergrad for a master’s degree, then set out for a career.
Thus began my personal relationship with petroleum. My father and mother moved around for years between parts of Texas and Oklahoma as the projects demanded. Oil and natural gas refineries and pipelines needed something, but rarely for longer than two years. “That’s just what you expected,” my dad would say, “you moved every two years until you moved up enough to stay in Houston.”
Then a couple of years before I was born, my dad was assigned to a project in what he called the “foreign country” of south Louisiana. Another two years, he thought, and then they would go back to Texas or Oklahoma.
They didn’t. I was born. Enron collapsed, and the next job brought us only an hour east, to Baton Rouge, and there I grew up, a son of formerly blue-collar Anglo Baptists, in the middle of Catholic country, and there my parents remain as of this writing. Sometimes my dad took my brother and me for drives along the bayous or the Mississippi River, especially at night, to spot the pipeline flares and checkpoints. They were likely work trips for my dad, but they didn’t feel that way to me.
I suppose now is the time to admit that I ‘believe’ in climate change. Not because I am a scientist or I have done enough research into the statistics. Rather, I am just a pessimist about our wasteful and consumptive time, like most other believers, I suspect. My petroleum-funded family raised me with the following principles: You should save and live frugally and not waste. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Your bad decisions will catch up with you. God created the earth and it was good, and He is still in charge, and He will come back to judge us someday, maybe soon. Perhaps to my parents’ surprise—but to my mind, consistently enough—I see the way we are consuming the earth without third thought, eating and wearing and using things we do not need, and mostly treating other people and other creatures and ourselves pretty miserably, and I conclude that our crisis is but an ecological version of ignoring those principles my parents taught me.
Of course, petroleum is not the end of that consumptive way of life I described above but its means. I wish environmentalists would better understand that there are no mustache-twirling billionaires drilling and digging and burning oil just for the hell and the money of it. Like money, petroleum is a very effective way to get the things we all want at the best convenience. And those in the oil industry are simply happy to oblige us and profit by their labors.
Even so, the means prove more important than the ends—as is often the case (and that should serve as a warning to those cheering on electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels, but more on that later). Petroleum seems destined to be on the way out, even as production has never been higher in the United States. Simply put, these means are unhealthy. And it’s not only the carbon emissions linked to petroleum that are the problem. Recent research has shown that microplastics—petroleum products, remember—are now endemic in bloodstreams and water supplies. Those who joke about Alex Jones (of “they’re turning the frogs gay!” infamy) might be surprised to find just about the same conclusions drawn by many researchers interviewed for the New York Times. As it turns out, petroleum doesn’t just heat the planet with carbon and fill the atmosphere with other pollutants. Its solid form harms sexual reproduction and dimorphism in animals and humans, which could in part explain the fertility crisis on the horizon. Now you might understand why Exxon sponsors those Pride parades. Then again, you might not understand why most Christian conservatives in America keep supporting Exxon.
Still, I can’t shake the fond memories of those flares. Or the hard hats sitting with me in the rear seat of my dad’s truck. Or the beautiful sunsets that befall Baton Rouge—yes, thanks to pollution coming from the Exxon refinery, one of the largest in the world. Recently, I had to travel back home for the funeral of a friend’s father. I was touched to learn that he and his buddies worked at that refinery their whole working lives. After they retired they met every week for morning coffee to talk shop and LSU sports. The industry provided a community I wish I had. I’d moved away from my home and friends, each of us working in some different non-physical industry, based online or elsewhere. There’s no shop to talk about. If only my friends and I had all stayed and worked on the pipelines together, I thought. Then I remembered that my friend’s father died of cancer before he reached sixty-five.
As I related earlier, I am a pessimist. Perhaps I should be excited about new ‘renewable’ technologies, but I am not. That is not just a matter of my own melancholy. Despite what I wrote earlier, the means aren’t everything. The ends do drive the means, in the end. And that means that, even if we replace the ways we go about satisfying our desires to consume so much, using wind or solar or some other fuel for our desires, we will not solve the problem. We might buy some time—we are always trying to buy our way out of some problem, after all. But in the end, we will only buy enough to let ourselves keep consuming, and consuming more. An electric vehicle: just another car to buy.
I now live in Central Texas, where renewable energy is booming, particularly wind energy. In its own way, like coal country in West Virginia, like bayous in South Louisiana and East Texas, like cotton fields in the Black Belt of Alabama. The rural areas beyond metropolitan regions are now overshadowed by wind turbines. In certain towns, you cannot see an unblemished horizon. When driving at night, you see repeated blinking red lights that don’t quite synchronize. The first time I saw them, I felt a deep horror in my stomach, as if this place had been invaded by an alien fleet. The people who live there may never see a clear night sky again. The cows couldn’t pay them enough, so they agreed to lease the land to the wind industry. Or their absentee, urban neighbor wanted some mail money.
It is now firmly established that per square footage, both solar and wind resources require much more space than petroleum, and certainly much more than nuclear, to produce the same amount of energy. (I leave aside the fact that turbines and solar panels are ecologically costly to construct, and they cannot be recycled.) Climate change fighters often risk forgetting that the ultimate crisis facing the earth is not carbon emissions but eco-cide: the destruction of life, of the place and space of life. And for the sake of combatting the former, many fighters are willing to accept, or at least ignore, the utter desolation of the latter. I am not the only one to imagine the logical conclusion of that strategy: keep increasing in consumption, keep needing energy, and keep building solar panels and wind turbines until the whole earth is covered by them. That future seems all too plausible.
Leave aside this blunt logical problem for a moment and indulge with me in some eco-phenomenology. Oil and natural gas, as mentioned, take up less space. The way you get their energy is different as well. You extract energy from the earth and use it, leaving ‘the earth’ still there as an entity, its own concept, its own different force, which you confront, perhaps infiltrate, even penetrate (yes, maybe seduce or even rape)—but still leave it there as its own. With oil and natural gas, therefore, you might still have some understanding of a nature or an earth separate from yourself. But take wind turbines and solar panels. They do not extract or infiltrate anything. They re-place where they stand, cover the face of the earth or the horizon of the sky. The very being of nature is turned into a resource, such that we no longer conceive of an ‘earth’ separate from ourselves but only an available space to be turned into energy.
There is something pornographic about this way of getting energy. If the former way was a seduction—using a technique to get in and get out what you want—then this way is about pure, naked display, using technology as if to enforce, see! this is all there is, this is really what the sky is for, let’s get down to business (wink, fake moan). And much like our sex lives, the bad mores of seduction from the past will have been replaced by the worse, bare, naked, hardcore pleasure-seeking that covers our screens today. And as with pornography, the reduction of something to brute, bare nakedness only conceals what and who was once there.
If we don’t cover the earth with solar panels someday in fact, we’ll have already done so in our souls. And we won’t even recognize the earth we have so covered.
So I don’t like those new wind turbines or solar panels, thank you very much. Nor the electric vehicles they shall one day charge on a streamlined, efficient, pollutant electric grid. My dad doesn’t either, but for less philosophical reasons. He tells me he’s saving up for the last gasoline-powered truck model to come out. He’ll be the last man to drive a combustible engine on the highway, if he can help it. As for me, I think the new models are ugly and don’t haul as much as the classics.
In a somewhat different protest against the future, therefore, I went backwards in years in my truck, trading in a 2018 Chevy with a malfunctioning touch screen for a red 2003 V6 3.0L Ford Ranger with a stick-shift, rolling windows, and 100,000 miles. That protest was long in the making. Like many pessimists, I am also nostalgic, and I’d been fondly remembering my first truck, a red 2005 Dodge Dakota with a stick shift and rolling windows. I’d been wanting to learn how to do something with my hands. And I’d been yearning for an independence that, I thought, might come little by little with an amateur expertise in taking care of my own truck. I’d wanted ten acres to plow but couldn’t get those, so I would take an old truck in consolation, a twenty-first-century substitute for yeomanry. Wendell Berry once said he felt ashamed to use a chainsaw while an old man he knew kept to his axe. I wonder what he would think about my truck compared to his acreage.
So I bought the truck and the damned thing broke down within a few months. After several YouTube videos, elbow grease, actual grease, borrowed and bought tools, I managed to change a serpentine belt, tensioner pulley, tensioner, and alternator, and I thought I’d fixed every squealing sound. I can’t say learning wasn’t fun. I did come to feel a certain independence that comes with that know-how. Colleagues in my white-collar work started treating me like the car guy. I drove my truck with the window rolled—yes, really rolled—down. I went to some swap meets and enjoyed the people I met there. They didn’t need to know I was a writer and academic. I felt, just for some moments at least, that I didn’t have to either.
A few months passed and the record-breaking Texas summer (a la the aforementioned climate change) made my truck overheat. After some work, the diagnosis: a blown head gasket. A new head gasket costs about $100 at your local parts store. But it belongs in the center of the engine, and that takes a lot of labor to get to. An amateur mechanic like me wouldn’t do the work. Too long of a YouTube video to watch, too long and too complicated to imitate after watching. But it’s just the kind of work he should do, because the professional mechanic would charge about $4000 (a la the aforementioned labor) to fix it.
So this amateur mechanic made the choice that I should do this work, because I am cheap and would not admit that the Texas heat just totaled this truck. So I called my older brother, a Marine veteran, oil-and-natural-gas man, and all-around mechanic junkie since he was fifteen. I had expected an eye roll I could somehow sense through a phone call: Ah, now the intellectual wants to be a mechanic. Instead: load it up on a trailer, drive it here, and we’ll fix it. Not a we might, but a we will.
I rented a U-Haul (first time), a trailer alongside it (first time), loaded up the truck on the trailer (first time), and then hauled a trailer (first time) 330 miles to his home in Arkansas. He welcomed me at 7:00 p.m. Friday night, and we got to work.
El Dorado, Arkansas is a small city of about 18,000 people. Or 17,756, as the new signs will correct you. That difference matters in a place like this, where the slightest change in local industry will be felt much more so than elsewhere. And all the more for this city: it is the home of an oil refinery and the gas station company Murphy USA, which has remained here stubbornly throughout its history. The Murphys haven’t moved to Houston, yet, though they did just move Murphy Oil’s headquarters there, hence the loss of 250 crucial people.
Like further northwest in Arkansas, El Dorado’s place as the headquarters for one rich and powerful family has gotten it some advantages. Murphy has single-handedly funded a downtown revitalization effort that has largely worked. Unlike most former boom towns, the storefronts are not yet vacant. The “Murphy Promise” offers generous college scholarships to any kids who attend local public schools.
But as my brother tells me, all this hangs by a thread. The town is already feeling the loss of Murphy Oil. “If the refinery shuts down,” he warns, “I leave, because that’s why I’m here, to help them get their gas where it needs to go. And then everyone else leaves, because I’m why they’re here.”
We got the engine pulled apart Friday night. Saturday is the fixing day. But we need to go to the store for another part we I need (first water pump, then fuel pump, then more oil). As we drive to the O’Reilly’s, I see the arts district and the outdoor concert venue and the newly built community college and know that it will not last. Build it and they will come, the Murphys may have hoped, but few people have. At best, they’ve only kept most from leaving. But what will happen once the refinery shuts down? The Murphys should know that the only reason people are there is because of the Murphys. I’m no businessman, but I suspect Murphy USA hasn’t hedged by shifting to solar panels or wind turbines.
It is a trajectory like so many others. When an industry leaves, another will not come to take its place. No solar panel factory will come to El Dorado, nor a Tesla factory, nor a wind farm to the hills nearby. Those will go to other places and they will become boom towns before their industries leave. Those who lose their jobs will not receive new ones here. To him who has not, even what he has shall be taken away.
The optimist might reply that I (we) don’t have much to worry about. All the battery plants are getting built in the South. Sure, but not this part of the South, this town, this factory, this job, this moment. Moments can’t get easily replaced, if at all. For moments, like people, are unique, and once they are gone, never shall they come again.
The only solution, we’re told, is movement and change. But people don’t like to move the way industries do. People settle, come to love, and come to grieve when they lose things, including their vocations, their lives of moments. When my brother and dad complain about EVs and share viral stories about batteries exploding, I understand. These men aren’t ranting against anything so much as fearing for what they know and love and need to keep loving well. There are worse sins.
I had tried to help my brother fix his truck when he was a teenage mechanic. I couldn’t do much more than hold a light. He explained things to me I never remembered. After not too long, I stopped holding the light.
But now I helped. As he labeled wires to keep track of pairs and he dissembled other areas of the engine, I got to work removing all the parts I had learned a few months ago to change. First the serpentine belt, then the pulleys, then the alternator. Hegel once talked about a dialectic when the master and servant stand as equals, once the servant has shown up his competence. I still don’t like Hegel, but now I got something of his idea. My brother still outdid me, of course. But when he gave advice, showed signs of corrosion here, narrated how the fuel gets to the cylinders there, I understood. I still remember.
I still remember the work we did. We replaced the head gasket, replaced the water pump, got the truck started. Then we couldn’t start the engine late Saturday evening. I’d left the gas tank mostly empty, and thus ruined the fuel pump. So the next morning we skipped church, got a fuel pump, took off the truck bed, installed the pump, put the bed back on, and ten minutes later that Ford Ranger drove me 330 miles back to Waco.
I wish I could write how it felt to know what to do, and when I didn’t know, to learn what to do and how to do it. I wish I could write about how nice it was to get dirty working on this tangible problem with my brother while we listened to country music. But as a writer I am not used to writing about such things, and I do not know if writing is the right way to describe them. For a weekend I was not a writer. Let the reader who is a writer understand.
Petroleum and I now stand in an odd relationship. I ‘know’ the general sentiments I am supposed to feel. I know that there are statistics the enlightened will be quick to tell me. I know them and believe them. But I also know what, I fear, many of the those enlightened only by statistics don’t know, but which I wish they did. There are things I must thank petroleum for. And there are other people, many of them, who depend on petroleum to live their human lives. Many of these lives even reach the grace of being humane. And these humane lives are threatened by these solutions the enlightened are offering. I wish they all knew that, and that everyone knew they will have to do something about it. I wish the enlightened knew what others know: the dignity you can earn by covering yourself in oil and grease and getting the job done. I wish they knew what you are losing when you promise the world a future without oil and grease and getting the job done, a world with only bus rides and train rides and self-driving cars that leave you with nothing to do but surrender. I wish I could help them know, help you know, but I can’t write about it, because there is a contradiction between being something and writing about something, such that no writing can help you know—not even writing about that contradiction between being and writing.
I don’t believe in petroleum, but part of me already misses it. I am coming to know full well how Augustine felt about that Roman empire he saw crumbling around him. He could feel the good intermingled with the bad, and he knew there was something higher and better awaiting him, but that would come a long time from now, not with next year’s car model. All there was to do was to accept the day as the Lord had made it, even as it crumbled. I suspect he mourned the crumbling even more on the day the walls came tumbling down and the day ended. Such is life in a fallen world.
So, this is not an essay about progress or lessons learned. It is no more than an attempt to know, to learn and remember, where we are, what is the nature of this day the Lord has made, and to know what will be lost once it sets, in God’s inscrutable timing. No more, but at least no less.
There will be petroleum still, I suspect, even after I am gone. Perhaps only as a memory. On a Friday night, my wife and I will go to a local dirt track to watch old cars race around a circle. Do these drivers and fans know they are part of a grand ritual to come, a memorial of what soon will no longer be, of what will one day only remain, not as something ordinary, but as a fragment of a forgetting past?
A few Wednesday nights ago, we gathered with a crowd into a community center, surrounding a dirt arena and sitting in metal seats and drinking $5 beers. We came to see horsemen ride and dance through the dirt and compete with a companioned animal once known but now no longer, except by those few in the ring. They recreated a former time in the ceremony of a dangerous game, still sacred, if only in its carnivality, an ironic echo of that foregone necessity. The horse remains, though an ornament.
Two hundred years ago, here roamed bands of tribes who followed the bison herd composed of one million animal souls, whose breaths arose in the cold night to share in a misty communion. The stars shone then, clear and bright and undisturbed above them. The tribes would camp there that night and then follow, like disciples of a way now forgotten. Their cult a sacrament pristine in its simplicity. Food for today, neither sowing nor reaping nor gathering into barns.
Five thousand years prior, “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
I dwell on these memories, or memories of memories, as I drive my truck on Highway 6 and a Tesla passes me by. My check engine light is on, and it blinks if I spend too much time going over 65. I don’t mind.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons