Oil and water: Standing Rock protesters bring paradox to light
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
One of the college courses I took to fulfill my general degree requirements was environmental economics. One of the lessons that really stuck with me was the diamond-water paradox, comparing the value of these natural products. Water is essential for survival, as we all know. We would not survive long without water. Diamonds are not essential for survival. There may be some that would say they could not imagine living without diamonds, but think about it—what do you need diamonds for? You cannot digest them. They do not provide vitamins or minerals. I use diamonds on files and sawblades because I can, but they are not necessary. Those are not even considered valuable diamonds; the most valuable diamonds in the world are those on display as decorations or jewelry. They are a status symbol, a relatable jewel that holds an intrinsic value to us but we as a civilization would be just fine without them.
So what is the paradox? We treat diamonds as the most precious material on earth. We build safes and hire guards to protect them. We pay premium prices for those that fall into the highest quality categories. There is a black market for diamonds; in other countries, diamond mine workers suffer terribly at the hands of those who wish to capitalize on the profits diamonds generate to fund invading armies and bankroll warlords in armed conflicts. These are called blood diamonds or conflict diamonds.
Water on the other hand is typically treated as a disposable resource. We let the tap run down the drain until water achieves the perfect temperature for drinking. We use dishwashers, clothes washers, and other appliances that consume water at a higher rate than washing by hand. We let garden hoses run while washing the dirt off our vehicles. Water has very little value compared to diamonds. I can buy a gallon of water for seventy-nine cents, but when I needed to replace the tiny diamond in my wife’s engagement ring, I had to buy a cultured diamond because a real diamond was beyond reach of my budget.
Oil could easily be looked at in terms of the paradox of value, or diamond-water paradox. We do not need oil for survival. “Aha!” you may shout. “We have to produce crops, raise livestock, and haul goods to market, and we cannot do that without gas and diesel. We cannot work without fuel in our cars. We need to heat our homes. Oil is a necessity!”
Oil is a necessity to us because we made it a necessity. We invented the internal combustion engine and the fuel-burning furnace. We could use horses to plow crops, and to travel (if we didn’t walk to our destination). We could heat our houses with wood. People in the United States and around the world still do. But that would take civilization too far backward, and we can’t just stop being an advanced civilization. In fact, being an advanced civilization has helped us develop the technology to reduce or eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. We can run vehicles on plant matter or natural gas (or electricity, which still is in the process of moving away from fossil fuel dependence). We can heat our homes with natural gas or renewable fuels (wood pellets) and we have learned to harness power from the sun, the wind, and the motion of water. In spite of these technological advances, we still choose to rely on oil.
The Dakota Access Pipeline has brought the paradox of value to light. Thousands of peaceful protesters are standing up and stating that water has more value to them than oil. No one is saying oil has no value; however, the perceived risk of contaminating their water supply with oil brings value into balance for them. They are willing to make personal sacrifices to protect the water they find so precious. While the circumstances have changed some in this ongoing issue, it is easy for us to be dismissive or judgmental from a distance. Here in the Great Lakes region we are one of the most water-rich areas in the world, which contributes to our economy and allows us to buy luxury items like diamonds and oil.
Sometimes it is valuable to critically examine that which holds the most value for us and why.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. He has work for natural resource agencies from the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, which provided opportunities to work with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook.