The world’s most heavily traded commodity has been charged with climate change and found guilty both in the court of public opinion and in climate science circles, with governments, non-profits, and other groups competing over who can shout “climate emergency” the loudest.
Climate change is a real and present danger, but with all the noise around the topic it has become easier than ever to forget that despite the negative side effects of the industry, crude oil has actually improved human life exponentially—in more ways than we can count.
We live longer
Call it ironic, what with all the pollution-related diseases humankind now suffers, but oil and, more precisely, the petrochemicals and plastics industry, has extended our life expectancy.
Improved sanitization is one of the main reasons for the rise in average life expectancy in the United States since 1900. This means more and better detergents, sterilization, and better personal hygiene. These three things have one thing in common: crude oil derivatives.
Detergents are made from oil derivatives. Single-use plastic products and materials in medical care ensure sterility when it is needed. Soaps and shampoos are also made from oil derivatives. One would have a difficult time finding a cleaning product that has no trace of oil in it whatsoever, at least an affordable cleaning product.
Cost is a large part of why oil has become the indispensable commodity it is. Single-use syringes, for instance, are not just safer than the steel ones of olden days, which had to be sterilized by boiling. They are also cheaper, which has made them so immensely popular among medical professionals. Related: The EIA Is Grossly Overestimating U.S. Shale
In the United States alone, some 20 million IV saline bags are used every month. And this is just one single-use plastic product that has inarguably contributed to the improvement in healthcare since the start of the 20th century alongside water filtration and vaccinations.
Having said all this, it is also a fact that the healthcare industry is overusing single-use plastics. There is a growing concern about it and attempts are being made to increase the amount of multiple-use plastics and increase recycling rates. Yet, for all the problems plastic waste has created for the planet, its positive role for human civilization is undeniable.
We are healthier
A wholesome diet is an indispensable part of a healthy life. Crude oil—and the fuels made from it—are in turn an indispensable part of the process that provides hundreds of millions of people with the opportunity for this healthier life.
Eating locally is certainly a commendable choice, but it’s worth noting that it is a choice usually made by either one of two groups of people: those wealthy enough to afford the normally higher prices of local producers and those too poor to afford anything but what is produced in the vicinity, sometimes as part of a barter economy.
But the United States currently imports more than half the fruit it consumes and a third of the fresh vegetables. While there are many reasons for this, one of the drivers of food globalization is—you guessed it—cheap transportation. And now these fruits and vegetables can reach more people.
Everything is more affordable
Millions if not billions of goods, including food, machinery, and consumer goods, are transported from one point to another across the globe on a daily basis. The portion that is transported by sea is more than 90%, according to the International Maritime Organisation, which adds that maritime freight transport is “by far the most cost-effective way to move en masse goods and raw materials around the world.”
What this means is that maritime transport is the cheapest way to move goods around. This, in turn, keeps their prices lower for the end-consumer, which means a household of average means can afford a lot more than their great grandparents could, thanks to oil, because the world’s container ship and freight fleet is overwhelmingly powered by oil-derived fuels.
We can fight climate change in a connected world
In another ironic twist—or, confirming the observation that evil always carries the seeds to its own destruction—without oil there would have been no digital revolution, no social networks and, consequently, no social network-driven movements against climate change. Put simply, if there was no oil, nobody would have heard about Greta Thunberg; not because there wouldn’t have been a problem for her to talk about, but because there would have been no social networks for her to spread her message. Related: Can Russia’s Arctic Oil Boom Survive U.S. Sanctions?
The thing many people often forget is that neither the electricity, nor the materials used to make computers, servers, and associated communications networks, appear out of thin air. The materials have to be mined, processed, and assembled. The supply chain involves a lot of fuel, electricity and, let’s not be shy about it, plastics.
The same is true of renewable energy. Wind turbines, for instance, are made of metal that is mined—with most of the equipment powered by oil-derived fuels—processed (at high temperatures currently only achievable with fossil fuels at cost), and impregnated against corrosion, with oil-containing chemical coatings. Solar panels are also far from fossil-fuel free during the manufacturing process.
Oil is like democracy from the famous quote attributed to Churchill in that it’s is not the best source of energy, what with all the emissions and plastic waste it leaves behind, but it’s the best we have at the moment. Oil has fuelled the rise—or decline, depending on viewpoint—of human civilization from the industrial to the post-industrial age and for all its problems, it has done at least as much good as it has bad on a global, life-improving scale.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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