The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: Oil
James V. Schall, S.J. - 08/13/08

Last Things is the regular column of Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.

A goodly supply of oil exists under the surface of the planet Earth because, long before human beings ever appeared on it, eons and eons passed during which immense vegetation grew, became compressed, and was preserved in the form of oil. The planet was evidently much warmer in those long gone days before anyone worried about “global warming.” Without an original warmer earth, we would have had no oil to worry about.

How much oil has been preserved this way is a matter of conjecture, but most of the world’s oil fields have probably been identified. Most are in production. However, a portion of the original supply has already been used keeping us going for the past century. An amazing amount is still there, in any case, even though we use something close to 85 million barrels a day. It almost seems like it was originally there for a purpose long before we knew what that purpose was. It may dry up for a purpose also. I suggest here that we cannot think about oil today without thinking about this initial purpose and its relation to our kind.

Up until the invention of the various internal combustion engines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, oil was rather a sticky nuisance. It messed things up. Then men discovered how it smoothed the workings of sundry doors and powered an incredible number of engines. The effective usefulness of oil, however, has little or nothing to do with oil itself or with those who sit on top of it or own the property rights over it.

In fact, the very idea of “ownership,” however natural it may seem to us, is a philosophical and legal idea that has nothing to do with oil as such. Like engines, effective law and economic procedures also had to be invented. The ways to own and use oil were not developed in the lands where most of the oil is today. Without such property rights, however, there probably would be no oil to use. In fact, these instruments of oil ownership are no different from their role in the use of any other natural material found in the earth from coal or grass, which is oil in another form, to silicon or iron or copper. “Natural resources” are themselves products of civilization.

The theory of private property, as we read in Aristotle, was developed because commonly held property was so inefficient and wasteful. No one took much care of public property. If something was likely to be productive, it had to be owned and cared for by individual people who are rewarded for their efforts within a legal system where contracts and payments were enforceable. More importantly, a reason to use natural materials and a way to use them had first to exist. These latter two elements, desire and way-to-use, only come about because of the peculiar nature of man who can think and act. Without man, all the original oil would still be there under the earth. No one would be about to worry about its “purpose” or use or depletion.

The “owners” of oil rich lands did little to create or develop its usefulness and therefore its economic demand. They are related to their petroleum resources as “windfall” not as inventors. The increasing value of oil, even today, is wholly dependent on a way to use it along with a global desire to employ these ways, like driving a car or using fertilizer to grow crops. In the past, nations with vast supplies of oil were often poverty stricken. Many still are, even though they have a lot of money. They did not know what oil was or how to use it; nor did they have governmental or economic structures that enabled everyone to participate in these riches through their distribution in a market. The “usefulness” of oil is a product of technologies and systems that know how to use it. They flow from what Aristotle called practical intellect. Without a “demand,” the oil would remain in the ground. And if the cost of oil becomes ever higher, as it may, it will remain there again, what is left of it.

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