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In praise of petroleum

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A young woman approached me recently after one of my economics lectures and showed me a photograph of a pelican covered with oil from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Waving the photo in my face, she asked, "How can you tolerate this?"

Good question. It made me realize that every newspaper across the country should publish a front-page picture of asphalt. Any old stretch of road will do. Photograph it. Print it. Post it on websites.

Every day these papers should feature a front-page picture of some other item made from petroleum (such as roofing shingles, a bottle of ammonia, ink, a waterproof parka, plastic wrap, lipstick and antiseptic ointments) or of products treated with petroleum to improve their performance and durability (such as razor blades and cutting boards).

Of course, no newspaper will publish such pictures. Unlike oil-covered pelicans, such items are not the least bit newsworthy.

Even people who aren't especially fond of animals must admit pictures such as the one my student showed me are sad. Unfortunately, though, such pictures are themselves a cause of a sort of pollution, one more dangerous than even a thousand oil spills.

I speak of polluted perceptions of reality.

Wildlife made ugly and ill by spilled oil make for vivid images. And photos of such misfortunes do indeed reveal a risk of oil drilling -- namely, temporary spoliation of some parts of the natural environment.

But precisely because such spills are relatively rare (and getting rarer), we don't see such images routinely. So when these images are presented to us, they stir our emotions.

Trouble is, by focusing on such photos we get a distorted view of the bigger picture, one that includes oil's manifest benefits.

How many of us reflect on the benefits that we enjoy from asphalt• Asphalt makes road construction and repair less costly. So we in the industrialized world daily drive to school, work and play on clean, smooth roads that would not exist, or that would be less smooth and wide, were it not for this unassuming product made from petroleum.

Asphalt is so common that we take no notice of it. Yet if it disappeared tomorrow, we'd all suffer noticeably.

The same is true for, say, plastic wrap. We give this stuff nary a thought. Yet because bacteria cannot pass through it, those thin sheets of plastic keep meats, vegetables, dairy products and breads fresher -- and protect us against food poisoning.

Fact is, gasoline and aviation fuel aren't the only products produced with petroleum. Our modern lives are full of too many such products to count.

And not only are petroleum-based products all around us and practically indispensable -- they're also inexpensive. Yet we pay no attention to these everyday wonders.

This fact is why photos of oil-covered wildlife are dangerous: They make us aware of petroleum's risks while we remain oblivious to petroleum's benefits.

In the real world petroleum is an astonishingly beneficial, versatile and inexpensive resource. In the fantasy world of too many people, however, petroleum is a vile substance that does little beyond enriching a few sheiks and billionaires while it kills both the planet and humanity.

But in fact our world is incalculably better and even cleaner because of petroleum -- which is why it is especially regrettable that newspaper pictures of the likes of plastic wrap and asphalt would not grab readers' attention with anywhere near the impact of pictures of oil-covered animals.

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