Married to Oil

I say a lot of negative things about being married to oil, and certain aspects of it do make me feel sometimes frustrated and powerless, on both personal and cultural levels. But the truth is, as with most things, it's complicated.

My initial response to my husband’s job when we met wasn’t quite disdain, but I didn’t really consider it a positive situation. Secretly, I had it on my mental list of things that I hoped might change sometime in our future, if we had a future. I thought maybe it was temporary stage that he would shift out of, like the few years that I was thinking about law school before I realized that it wouldn't be a good fit for what I really wanted. He loved Minnesota so much, and he was such a nice guy, how could this industry be his future?

My husband was living the high life through oil and it was hard to not feel a little resentful when I was still teaching. I couldn't keep up. He made four times what I was making as a teacher, and yet we worked a similar amount of hours (a circumstance which also put into stark relief for me the values of our culture). Before we were married, I followed him and his job across the country, and then couldn't afford to go home with him on vacation. Of course he was helpful in that matter, but the principle of it was awkward.

I struggled with his job for a while, until I looked around me and realized that he was one of the few people I knew experiencing professional contentment. He liked his job. He felt adequately compensated and felt that he had an appropriate amount of time off. It was challenging and it made use of his education. At that point, in our late 20s, reflecting on the fact that very few of my peers felt positive about their work, I hung in there. Watching him, I realized I had never once in my academic career thought about science. Biology? Engineering? Chemistry? In a hundred years, those possibilities wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I took my university degree.

Still though, even after watching him feel appreciative of and challenged by his work, and trying to view it in that light, I felt dirty. Now I was in deeper; there was no doubt that money from the oil industry flowed down my gullet and into my frequent flyer mile balance. I felt like a traitor to my values, because at the same time, I was personally wrestling with my own strong dislike for my job (the underpaid, helping-people type of job). I was also learning more about sustainability, trying to reconcile my pleasure from fashion with the waste it produced. Trying to understand how to enjoy fashion and not over-consume. And noticing the vast web of links between fashion and petroleum products.

My husband giving up a career path that he cares about and for which he is well-suited would not necessarily change the North American cultural dependence on oil. Not to mention that his industry needs people that care about environmental consequences and long-term plans, as much as short-term profits, which I am proud to say he does.

There is oil in our food products, and in our refrigerator. There is oil in hair products and makeup. There is oil in furniture and in many types of clothing and textiles. Without oil, at this point in time, there is no flying for almost anyone, and there is very little driving to work. Without oil, there is not much to buy in North America, frankly, since North Americans no longer produce much of what we buy. With no oil, consumer goods would stay in Southeast Asia (those that can be made without petroleum products, that is), and we would all head back to the farm. Where we would struggle, because we would have to farm the old-fashioned way, without vehicles, pesticices and fertilizers. The list of ways that we choose short-term comfort by way of fossil-fuel cost goes on forever.

We make efforts to use less petroleum in our household, and to live more lightly, and my husband's career helps me do that. We live well as a direct result of his work, and we try to use his generous compensation to consciously support small, local, and sustainable entities. Many of our peers in more socially responsible fields cannot afford to do that because of lower compensation. It's complicated, and I'm grateful to understand enough now to know that.