energy 101

At Home

I'm Never Moving to Houston

When my husband and I got together, it was clear that for most people in his company, and indeed, many in his line of work, all roads lead, eventually, to Houston.  The idea was horrifying to both of us.  Louisiana, fine, but Houston?  We had to draw the line somewhere.  Houston represented (in our minds) everything that we found abhorrent and disappointing about American culture.  The Bush debacle.  Urban sprawl.  Outrageous heat.  Gun-loving Bible people.  Big hair and country club life.  We laughed at our little private joke.  Houston, the very idea.  So when we got engaged, and he continued working in oil, my general message was, "I'm so thrilled for our life together, our partnership, and I love you very much, but I just want you to know that I'm never moving to Houston."

So what's crazy is that we're moving to Houston next month, and I'm not drawing up the divorce papers, or even having a meltdown.  To be honest, I'm even a little bit excited.  It was hard to let go of the Africa fantasy, but in my heart, I know that going to Houston gets us closer to home on multiple levels.  Africa was "adventure", but Houston allows us a real life.  I think.

In the last few weeks, as the news of this move has unfolded, I have been developing an arsenal of bright-side-of-moving-to-Houston notions.  Here are some reasons that I have to look forward to Houston:

1.) The food is probably outstanding.
2.) The people are warm, passionate, and refreshingly direct, compared to Minnesotans.
3.) A few of our friends already live in Houston, or within a manageable roadtrip.
4.) There is likely to be great music around.
5.) Heat is not all bad, and I actually like humidity.
6.) The food should be out of this world, and much more affordable than food in Luanda.
7.) Did I mention that I have high hopes for the food?

One of the best things is that several of our friends have been transferred there over the last couple of years, so there will be a reunion of sorts, and so won't have to start over completely in the friend-making department.  Also, see above list; with regard to food.  Mexican, barbeque, avocados everywhere, I can hardly concentrate right now thinking about it.  Austin, one of our favorite cities, is only a few hours from Houston, making it a fun and easy weekend getaway.  And, Houston is the 4th largest city in country (!!!), so there has to be some creative stuff going on, right?

Fast Company named Houston city of the year this year, so my fingers are crossed.  Also, now I can develop a much healthier attitude to the month of February, since it is possible that that is when the best weather of the year will occur.

So, we're headed to Houston, and while it wouldn't have been my first choice, it was also not even close to my last choice anymore.  Don't tell me that people can't change.

The Miracle of Modern Clothing

I started thinking about the unsustainability of my shopping habits in my mid 20s.  I knew that I shopped too much, leaned too hard on the excitement of new clothes.  It seemed effective, though, and I have always loved clothes, so it was a hard habit to shift.  At the time, I was working to eat healthier, eliminate toxins from my beauty routine and be healthier in most areas of my life, but I was stumped by my closet.  At my grocery store, I could trace the origins of many foods, but what about my clothes?  I worried most about labor: unsafe factories who knew where, and children chained to sewing machines.  I worried also about chemicals in the fabric dyes, and what were all of those new fibers that I had never heard of listed on the tags?

I can't lie, I was a true advocate of the power of retail therapy to recover from frustrations.  Why get a therapist when you can buy some fantastic boots for the same price, and feel great at the same time?  Right?  Of course, the answer is not exactly.  I still believe in the healing power of an occasional splurge, but what I started to notice was the pile of garments in my closet.  Where did they actually come from?  Why were some items deemed worthy of much higher prices than others?  Why did I need them desperately enough to derail my budget, and then feel fine getting rid of them sometimes only a short time later?  Did  name brand actually matter?

Strangely, what has had the most measurable impact on my apparel consumption since then has been the dawning realization that fashion and the global quest for petroleum are completely intertwined.  And while I've learned to make peace with oil paying our household bills, I remain uncomfortable with the veil of cultural silence around the high costs of textile waste and other fast-fashion addictions.  The price of a barrel of oil is not just tied to our gas tank and our 401k; it is linked to the cost of our clothing, and it's time to be held accountable for that.

It was very hard to find answers to these questions; I am still on my quest. In the very short term, the thing to consider is this:  when you buy a twelve dollar tee shirt, how could it possibly be that cheap?  Think of the steps: grow the cotton, clean and sort it, spin it into yarn, knit the yarn on special machines, dye the cloth, design the shirt, cut the pieces from the fabric, sew the shirt, make sure the shirt fits your target market, mass produce the shirt, add tags and packaging, and ship the tee shirt to the country of the store where it will be sold.

It's even more wild to consider the inexpensive polyester garment.  One thing that I've learned about oil over the last few years is that making it come out of the ground requires madness.  Hundreds of thousands of people (and their loved ones) are affected.  The workers drive, fly and boat to rigs.  They work in boiling hot and freezing cold conditions, with all manor of toxic materials and explosives, and the rigs operate twenty-four hours a day.  They work in countries all over the world, regardless of the political situation.  They work like that because we demand petroleum to make our cars run, our clothes fit, and our food taste the way we want, all at a price that we find palatable.  And we demand it with less and less patience.

Another very real problem with cheap apparel is that it falls apart quickly.  It is frequently referred to as disposable fashion.  People wear that shirt or dress a few times, and it begins to pill, unravel, shrink, or discolor, sometimes in just a few wearings.  Workers across the globe just performed a long string of tasks, several of which required endurance of physically demanding and sketchy working conditions, so a woman could wear a dress to the beach a few times and then throw it away.  Oil that required millions of years to form, was extracted and used for a product with a lifespan of weeks.  Disposable fashion is essentially an extreme form of living on a global credit card.

I have always derived great pleasure from beautiful clothes; I doubt that will ever change.  But can't we just have a slightly smaller collection of garments in our closet that we keep at least for a slightly longer time?  Fewer purchases make room for purchases of slightly higher value; we can afford clothes made of materials that don't make us sick, and we can afford to pay workers enough money, if we are willing to buy fewer items at a higher value each.  Can't we afford to ensure that we wear things that don't cause illness and discomfort to others?

I'm hopeful that it's only a matter of time before a public starting to ask questions about the origins of the beef and the farmer who grew the potatoes, will also ask questions about the the farm, the oil rig, and the factory used to produce the clothes on their backs.

"Kuwait on the Prairie"

As far as we can tell, there is no oil in Minnesota.  Mostly, as we observe what having oil can do for and to a community, we have been grateful that the place that we call home would not be used and abused by the boom and bust cycles which plague the modern oil economy.  During visits home, I have been happy about the lack of random derricks and rusted out equipment lingering in fields.  I have felt grateful that prices of food, fuel and housing do not feel as artificially inflated resulting from oil companies temporarily pouring money and people into a place.

On the other hand, there is the Bakken formation, in western North Dakota.  Growing up, all I knew of North Dakota was Fargo, where my parents were born and raised.  I knew that it was cold, even colder than where I had lived in Minnesota, and that many people I knew from the area around our cabin lived in Fargo during the times they were not enjoying the Minnesota lakes, where we all spent as much time as possible.

My life with my husband's work has been largely separate from my life at home.  If we are home visiting,  the language and rhythms and energy of oil production feel distant and far away, a separate existence.  However, a few weeks ago, there was an article about western North Dakota oil production in my favorite magazine, The New Yorker.  I read The New Yorker not because I care about New York, which I don't particularly, but because it is consistently some of the best writing around.  The articles are detailed, relevant, thorough, intriguing, and help me feel connected to the world.  I read about the Arab Spring, the development of an American art museum by the Walmart family, the history of cancer, the possible viability of insects as a viable source of protein for developed nations, and all manner of other random things which I would normally only catch headlines for.  And on that day, I read about places and a topic already partially familiar to me.

I had recently made the drive between Minnesota and Calgary, and had been comforted to see the physical space between those two places.  It made me much less homesick to understand that in one day, propelled by forces mostly within my control, I could traverse the chasm between our oil-soaked life in Calgary and our family life in Minnesota.  During that drive, I was also comforted, for the first time, by the presence of an oil industry.  I saw with my own eyes residue of oil and gas world linked to a place that was very close to home.  It struck me as a possible long-term way home for us, and have thought of it frequently since that trip.

Oil, Energy and Consumption

After finally getting it through my thick skull that my husband would keep the job he liked in the oil industry, and maybe that would even be okay, I started paying more attention to it. I have learned facts that surprise me about energy, including information about how we collect it, create it, produce it, use it and waste it.

Information like this might not surprise others, but to be totally honest, I have just never thought much about energy until my personal life became linked more closely to it in the last few years. Exhibit A was the look of surprise and disgust my husband gave me when, in a fit of frustration over a nest of tangled cords, I lamented the fact that electricity couldn't be wireless. Anyway, here are some basics:

  • The ratio of fossil fuel inputs per unit of food energy produced averages 3:1 for all U.S. agricultural products combined, but runs as high as 35:1 for beef produced in feedlots (including processing and distribution). [Putting Meat on the Table, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Pew Charitable Trusts, 2008]

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations account for 18% of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, a percentage which is higher than what is produced by the transportation sector. Agriculture accounts for 7.4% of greenhouse gases released in the United States. [Putting Meat on the Table, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Pew Charitable Trusts, 2008]

  • Coal-fired power plants account for a third of all electricity worldwide. Coal is cheap, and plentiful. But filthy. [Green, Hoffman and Hoffman, 2008]

  • While the United States has the highest consumption of barrels of oil as a country, they do not have the highest consumption per capita. []

  • More than 5% of the U.S. domestic crude oil output in 2010,113 million barrels, was produced in North Dakota [The New Yorker, April 25, 2011]

  • The top ten net exporters of oil for 2008 were: Saudi Arabia, Russian Federation, Islamic Republic of Iran, Uniter Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Angola, Norway, Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela (International Energy Agency, most recent stats available)

  • Canada is a producer and a net exporter of electricity. The United States is a producer and a net importer of electricity. (International Energy Agency)

  • China's share of global CO2 emissions has quadrupled since 1973 (from over 5% to over 20%), while the North American share of CO2 emissions has dropped by a third, from over 65% to 43%). During that same period of time, global CO2 emissions nearly doubled.

Who has more? Email, with facts and the cited sources.

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.