I work in oil…I’m sorry!

Okay. I can hear you scoffing from here, thinking that I have sold out, buying into the capitalist machine, thinking money (and the oil that comes with it) is the most important thing in the world. But, before you make any judgements, hear me out first.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had to explain my new job quite a few times. I’ve found that there are a couple of different ways that I can do it, and the difference between the reactions they provoke is incredible.

Scene 1: So Zara, what do you do now?

Answer: I work in anti corruption/transparency research, that kind of thing.

Response:  That sounds interesting!

Scene 2: So Zara, what do you do now?

Answer: I work in the oil industry…

Response: (Raised eyebrows, a look of disgust, or a rant about how oil is destroying the planet)

It has genuinely amazed me how mentioning the word “oil” can provoke some pretty strong reactions, despite the accompanying “good” words that I (often quite defensively I imagine) tack on the end of the sentence.

Obviously, many of the assumptions of “oil=evil” are entirely true. Oil is associated with lots of awful things- personally, the image that still comes to mind is one of birds on a beach struggling to swim because of all the nasty black stuff that is weighing their feathers down after an oil spill. Images like that, as well as the huge amounts of publicity and general horror images that are bombarded at us from the media immediately after a spill, have helped to reinforce our assumptions about oil. It’s associated with money, and subsequent corruption; with being the reason behind climate change, and with generally being a source of only ‘bad’ things.

And I’m not denying any of this. I completely agree; oil is the reason behind all of those things. The thing that most people seem to miss in my ‘confession’ that I now work in the oil industry, is that I don’t think that those bad consequences should be taken as inevitable.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard people talk about money in what seemed to me to be a quite flippant way. A few hundred thousand dollars here and there, or even a couple of million, has seemed like peanuts when it comes to oil contracts. But as I’ve come across more prices and figures in the world of oil I’ve realised that, actually, a few million dollars is nothing compared to how much these companies are making. In the first half of 2011, ExxonMobil made $21.3 billion dollars. Needless to say, that is an incredible amount.

So naturally, you’d think that countries who have the luck to possess large oil reserves would be absolutely raking it in, right? Well, no. That’s where the resource curse comes in…but more on that another time. My point is that the oil industry contains huge amounts of money, and it has come to play an equally huge role in the world’s economy.  It’s the driving force behind economies, and it’s been the cause of every global financial crisis we’ve had, as outlined by Jeff Rubin in his book, Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller.

On a smaller scale, I also don’t think that we realise how much of an impact oil has on our everyday lives. Nowadays it’s pretty on-trend to be environmentally friendly; riding bikes, buying organic food and not owning a car for example. But oil isn’t just a fuel; its derivatives are used to make plastic, to make the asphalt that covers our roads, and even in the packaging of frozen foods. I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t own something which wouldn’t exist without oil, no matter how eco-friendly they seem to be. Unless they manage to avoid travelling by road, and locally source all of their food from their own garden (using tools that they have acquired without petrol being used along the way) it is highly likely that somewhere along the line, fuel would have helped the food get to the organic supermarket, and plastic might have covered it at some point, and the tools used to dig it up might have been transported to the farm by a petrol powered truck.

Oil is everywhere around us, whether we like it or not. And as much as we are trying to get rid of its presence because we all now know just how bad its effects are on the world, we’re not going to be living in a world without oil for decades yet. As far as I can see, it seems pointless to ignore the huge problems in the oil industry simply because oil itself isn’t “eco friendly”- it’s not about that. It’s about trying to lessen the bad effects of an industry which could, if managed in the right way, have an incredible effect on the economies of so many countries that need it.

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