In and Out of Oil

It is fair to say that in the last few hundred years, our culture has been deeply involved with oil. Even though we have a close relationship with this transformative liquid, we seem to have great difficulty with it. We have known for a long, long time that oil could be lit and that with a bit of ingenuity it could be contained and used as a source of energy, especially as light and heat.

A lit kudlik.

A traditional Inuit kudlik (or quilliq). Image: Lee Narraway © Students on Ice

Inuit hunted seals and whales, and the oil from the fat of those animals was burned in a stone container called a kudlik (or quilliq) that, when tended properly, would heat an igloo during the brutal cold of Arctic winter. This traditional, family use of oil still continues, but now is far overtaken by more modern methods.

Europeans understood the natural resource of the great whales, which led to exploitation and eventually, overexploitation. As with any place where humans travelled, the largest animals were the first to be noticed, investigated, used and eliminated.

We understood that there was a great volume of oil contained inside a whale, whether derived from rendering the huge mass of blubber, or spermaceti, which is the oil that resides in the upper-most part of the head of sperm whales, where sonic impulses of sound pass through before being directed across great distances in the ocean.

An illustration showing the anatomy of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) head.

Anatomy of the head of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Image: © Kurzon (license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported)

These oils were used for decades to make soap, cosmetics, clothing, and to light the homes and streets of Europeans and later North Americans, in a world that was rapidly becoming mechanized. We were so attached to the products of oil that we nearly eliminated all the whales, chasing the ever-dwindling population to the far reaches of the globe. This folly has led to international collaborations to protect whale species.

Even though many forms of energy drive electric lights and heating systems, and chemistry is driving the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and plastics make far superior supporting undergarments than baleen, there are nations and cultures that still pursue certain species of whales as cultural and food items.

As great innovators and explorers, we also came to understand that bountiful reserves of oil reside deep in the Earth, and that oil can be extracted and refined into forms that give off great amounts of energy when ignited. We have found and continue to discover huge volumes of oil, and many ways to use it. The exhibition Edward Burtynsky: Oil and its impressive photographs show the extent to which this resource shapes our lifestyle and our landscapes.

Aerial view of a highway interchange.

Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003. Chromogenic colour print. This photo is one of the works of Edward Burtynsky that you can see this summer at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York

The rate of our culture’s consumption of oil resources, however, has outstretched the planet’s ability to adapt to the results of our use of it. Today, the by-products of oil use are causing rapid changes to Earth’s climate and weather, to the chemistry of the ocean, and to many of the patterns of how plants and animals are distributed.

Natural-history museums are builders, distributors, and keepers of long-range data about how plants and animals make their living, including where we might find them and their limits for surviving environmental change. As we update our studies, we pass along what we learn to our scientific colleagues, the general public and regulators who make decisions about our natural world. As we go in and out of our fascination with oil, studies like the Flora of Arctic Canada and Alaska will provide the details of how our lust for energy is shaping life on Earth.

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