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Oil speak: Then and now


Posted by in Energy on Wednesday, October 12, 2011



A word cloud of book titles from the past decade, all relating to oil.

Claudia Goodine takes a glance at the past, courtesy of the Canadian Geographical Journal archives.

In just over 60 years, the way we speak about oil has dramatically changed.

In E.M. Holbrook's 1949 feature article, Oil from the Earth, pages from a not so distant history capture the height of our love affair with petroleum.

"What substance in the world is most useful to man?" Holbrook writes.

"Which portion of Nature's generous bounty is of the greatest benefit to civilization's constant struggle for progress? Perhaps it is water or wood, you say. Or is it perhaps iron, or gold, or uranium? A case could be made for any of those and many others but this is the story of petroleum, a product of the earth that has so many thousands of uses that it can hardly avoid being called man's most versatile servant."

Two workers drill at an Alberta well.
Few would use that reverent tone for oil today. it is as if our enthusiasm for the substance that fuels the modern world has all but dried up. In the face of scarcity and climate change, what we once praised as a gift we now curse as an addiction.

A browse through 100 titles of the top selling books about oil in the last decade show a prominence of gloomy words: peak, climate change, war and crisis (as illustrated in our word cloud above, courtesy of Tagxedo).

It's a far cry from Holbrook's language in Oil from the Earth, in which the author lists various uses for oil, from plastics and medicines to its role in securing "democracy's victory" in World War II.

Holbrook's piece reflects an era when oil supplies seemed limitless.

The same year Holbrook's article was published, Canada's population of 13 million used about two million barrels of oil every week.

The population has since more than doubled, but our oil consumption has increased seven-fold. We now consume more than two million barrels of oil every day, or 15 million barrels every week.

Peak oil is no longer a hypothetical scenario. In fact, conventional oil production already hit its peak in 2006 according to the International Energy Association.

Unconventional sources of energy such as Alberta's oil sands and B.C.'s shale gas are now being exploited in part due to the dwindling reserves of cheap oil. Their extraction from the earth deals heavy-handed blows to the environment.

The discourse may have changed since Holbrook sat down to write the article. A writer today might employ a different vocabulary to write a similar piece. Yet their attitude toward human ingenuity might not change.

This "petroleum tree," published along with the original article courtesy of Imperial Oil, lists some of the products made from oil that people encounter on a daily basis

People power

Holbrook credits the achievements of the petroleum industry to "fast and vigorous action, ingenious experiment and daring enterprise."

Chris Turner, a leading writer and speaker on sustainability, expresses similar enthusiasm towards the renewable energy industry. In his latest book, The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in a Sustainable Economy, Turner suggests that with similar vigorous action, experiment and daring enterprise, we can usher in a green energy economy.

'Don't be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated," he writes, referring to an old axiom. "You can't cross a chasm in two small jumps."

Human ingenuity and technology may have led to innovations in renewable energy, but we continue to rely on oil reserves and unconventional sources of oil.

Looking ahead, however, oil is not the single most important source of energy fueling our future. Today, we tend to view a mix of renewable energy sources as solutions to our energy challenges.

To read the full article by E.M. Holbrook, download the PDF here.




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