20,000 Leaks into the Sea

Everything we as humans have access to is finite. Some things occasionally appear to be inexhaustible, but that is simply not the case. For practical purposes, perhaps, some resources are limitless. But we may yet find a limit to even the enormous ball of fire in the sky.

We are constantly reminded that oil will fail us. Oil prices are an omnipresent talking point for pundits. However, if one measures  gasoline prices against commodities instead of against the ever-depreciating dollar, one may get a hint that the world’s oil is not running out all that quickly. Consider as well this question: what material comes to mind when asked to name something that is “cheap”? Did you think of plastic? Plastic, the substance that encases all of the food you purchase at the grocery store? That forms the chief material of nearly every product that is marketed as “disposable”? Plastic is so cheap that it has become the byword for cheap. And what is plastic? It is oil. Petroleum oil. If the oil supply is really that limited, how is plastic so ubiquitous?

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne not only predicted the modern submarine; he predicted the modern concern about the available supply of fossil fuels. He also predicted that man would turn to the sea in search of more fossil fuels. He talked about underwater coal fields, not off-shore oil drilling, but let’s not be too picky. Man would one day use all the coal that can be ripped from the earth, so he would have to start mining the seas.

However, Verne seems unwilling to follow the question through thoroughly. His narrator says that man will one day use up all of the coal that can be mined on land. Fine. Man will then turn to the sea in search of more. Great. The supply of coal under the oceans is “inexhaustible”. What?

Why should man not be able to use up all of the sea’s resources as surely as he will use up all the resources of the land? Because the sea is much larger? Sure, it will take longer to use up every bit of usable material from the sea, but why should it be impossible?

A similar confusion exists with regard to the conservation of wildlife. The narrator admits and laments that man has hunted animals out of existence. He mentions specifically certain seals and whales and sea cows that have been hunted to extinction or to the brink thereof. Yet, he says that the oyster beds off the coast of Ceylon are “genuinely inexhaustible, since nature’s creative powers are greater than man’s destructive instincts.” Why in the world should he think this? He knows that there are animals that man has wiped from the Earth. For those creatures, nature’s powers did not seem to be an adequate match for man’s destructive instincts. Man can exterminate Steller’s sea cow but couldn’t wipe out the oysters of Ceylon if he put his mind to it?

Verne, or at very least his characters, anticipated our time so remarkably well: not only the present concern about running out of natural resources, but the unreasonable optimism that we will eventually find new resources that are “genuinely inexhaustible.” He underestimated the human ability to live beyond our means.

Beer of the Week: Bali Hai Premium Lager – The dugong, or sea cow, has been hunted throughout history for its meat. Since its range includes the waters off of Indonesia, there is a chance that a nice dugong steak has been washed down with a cold pint of Bali Hai beer. (Although since the dugong population has been precariously low for a long time now, it is possible that no Indonesians have hunted dugong since they’ve started brewing beer.) This beer started off as a very promising pilsner. It Is an attractive golden beer and the typical pilsner hops can be smelled immediately when the beer is poured. But the smell fades quickly. What really matters is the taste. And this beer does not taste good. It is bland and boring. The hops never deliver on the initial promise of the smell. The aftertaste is almost metallic. We are not surprised that an Indonesian beer is not good.

Reading for the Week:  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne – Captain Nemo, protector of the oppressed, wouldn’t let famous harpooner Ned Land hunt a baleen whale for sport. But he would slaughter a whole pod of sperm whales because they are themselves violent animals. I am reminded of The Humans Are Dead by Flight of the Conchords: “Captain, do you not see the irony, by destroying the humans because of their destructive capabilities we have become like…do you see what we’ve…see what we’ve done?”

Question for the week: If you could chose one resource to have an unlimited supply of, what would it be? (Keep in mind that the relative value of that resource would likely plummet as the market becomes flooded.)