A Tale of Old Growth Timber and Oil

In response to yesterday’s article on why I oppose offshore drilling, Jonathan sent the following:

Let me tell you a little tale.

I went to grades 6-12 in a small Washington state lumber town. It was a company town whose sole economy consisted of the lumber mill and the logging operations that supported it. The mill cut primarily old growth timber. During four summers of college, I worked in that mill doing enchanting things like cleaning out the pit, pulling on the chain and jackhammering the boilers.

One day, along came concern about a small, endangered bird called the Spotted Owl. Political talk arose about preventing logging in the small remnant of old growth timber, as this was the bird’s primary habitat.

You can imagine what the townspeople said: “Goddamn owls! This is our livelihood! Cut the f@*&$ timber!” Even so, the mill hands knew the old growth was about gone. I know they knew it because I heard them talk about it in the break-shack. My father, an executive, knew it too. In fact, anyone who wasn’t an idiot knew it.

(Although I admit that’s setting the bar unfairly high in that town’s case. To preempt the reader’s first logical question, it’s not that there wasn’t enough replanted timber. The problem there was that the elderly mills were all set up to cut big logs, and would essentially require complete retooling in order to cut smaller new-growth logs economically. The companies didn’t want to completely rebuild their mills.)

It was therefore certain that this town’s primary economy would die out. The town had a couple of options. It could either keep yammering for a few more years of old growth cutting — after which the cry of TIMBER! would be silenced anyway, leaving them in the same mess — or it could begin to reinvent itself around its spectacular scenery, ultra-cheap housing, safe rural school, superb fishing, and excellent hunting. (Naturally, it took about fifteen years to decide on the latter.)

Thus it is with petroleum.

Those bellowing to drill-drill-drill now-now-now remind me very much of the townspeople who voluntarily chose not to see that their way of life would change, and that the sooner they changed it on their own terms the less the world would dictate that change to them.

The world has a firearm pointed at the United States, and that firearm is oil. As long as we depend upon petroleum, we will be enmeshed in affairs that would otherwise be “not our problem.” Petroleum revenue has, in the main, been used against us and our interests by its recipients.

The day we cease to depend on petroleum is the day those bloated economies begin to recede to something approximating what they would have been without petroleum. But like the timber back in my little town, its days are numbered. We either take Erlenmeyer flasks and pipettes in hand and use our scientific know-how to find reasonable alternatives to petroleum, or we continue to let the likes of Hugo Chavez and the Wahhabis have far too much say in our future. OPEC was founded to counter the Seven Sisters cartel, and it did its job well.

It is time to render it moot.

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