- Mar 30, 2010
- Key facts
- It's a stretch, but imagine you're an Eskimo living 1,500 years ago
- Where does petroleum come from?
- How much energy does petroleum provide?
- How much petroleum is there, and how long will it last?
- Geography is against us
- Where might new oil reserves be found?
- Two unconventional sources of oil: oil shales and tar sands
- Growing worldwide competition for a dwindling resource
- If supplies are dwindling, why watch petroleum go up in smoke?
- Environmental effects of petroleum
- Petroleum exploration versus conservation of endangered species
- The bottom line
It's a stretch, but imagine you're an Eskimo living 1,500 years ago
It's around A.D. 500, and you're part of a small group of Eskimos struggling northeast in Siberia near the Bering Strait and crossing by boat into what is now Alaska. There you find other Eskimo groups whose lives are a struggle—living at the margin, barely enough food, hard to do anything but try to keep warm and figure out where the next meal will come from. This was the life of most Canadian Eskimos at that time, a struggle for existence.
But according to anthropologist John R. Bockstoce, an expert on Eskimo culture and Eskimo and Yankee whaling, you and your Eskimo relatives coming from Siberia, called the Birnirk culture, brought with you inventions for hunting. One of these was a harpoon made of bone and antlers that, like a modern whaling harpoon, would slide closed into the flesh of the whale and then lock in an open position when the whale tried to swim away. Your group also had kayaks, umiaks, and drag-float equipment and began using these devices to hunt whales. This led to a fundamental change in your lives. Whale meat and oil gave you so much more energy than your neighbors that your group did much more than simply hunt and think about the next meal. With the basic necessities of life—food and shelter—assured, people could use their surplus energy and time in more enjoyable ways: telling stories, painting pictures, singing—in other words, being "civilized" in the modern sense. Or if they were concerned that their food supply might dwindle, they could use that excess energy and time to acquire more territory, more food, more power—in other words, to wage war.2 The ability of early Eskimos to obtain meat and oil from whales is analogous to our ability to get petroleum cheaply and easily from the ground. As long as it was available that way, we could while away our leisure time with video games, golf, travel, and whatever else we wished. But by now almost everyone understands that petroleum is a finite resource that will be used up pretty soon if we continue to rely on it as one of our major sources of energy. Moreover, it's equally clear that the use of petroleum, rather than declining, is going to increase, especially since the huge populations in China and India are rapidly increasing their ownership and use of automobiles.