Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 10

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part II. Age of Excess

Chapter 10. Life in an Egosystem

On a trip to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, I met Abdel Hakim Ben Imour. He lived in Tifoultout, a beautiful village in the Draa Valley south of Marrakech.

Tifoultout is perched on a reddish bluff with nearby gardens dipping into the Ouarzazate River. The day I met Abdel, these waters were reflecting a sky of cobalt blue. From the ancient casbah at the top of the village where the Kaid, or chief, of Tifoultout once lived, young Abdel proudly showed me the green oasis below, with its date palms meandering through the narrow valley. Part of the casbah had been transformed into a four-room hotel to provide a source of funding to maintain the ancient edifice. Abdel was the manager of this wonderful inn, and he loved the place. Two storks had built their nest on one of the palace's highest turrets and their white plumage echoed the immaculate snow on the mountains framing the valley. I thought that if I were Moroccan like Abdel, I would love to build my house in Tifoultout.

As we talked, I learned that Abdel had gone to boarding school in Casablanca and that despite his keen interest in all things modern, he had decided to return to the simpler life of the Atlas Mountains. "This is where my heart belongs", he told me. However, after a few years in Tifoultout, his curiosity began to gnaw at him, and he decided to travel to America. I was naturally very interested to hear Abdel's impressions of the New World. I imagined that this "mountain poet", as his friends called him, from a tiny village in southern Morocco must have experienced quite a culture shock when he reached Texas. This is what he told me:

"As the years went by I started feeling that although I loved my home in the mountains, it wasn't the world of today. I even felt guilty for living such a sheltered life, far from the changing world of asphalt, steel, plastic and concrete. I wanted to see what things were like in other places, especially America, because I had the idea that people there were still pioneers. I thought I could offset the cost of traveling to the West by finding a job that would allow me to work my way across the ocean.

"I left as soon as I was hired as a deckhand aboard a cargo ship. We were supposed to stop in New York and continue on to Texas. Texas was where I really wanted to go. I remembered from school that it was the land of oil in the United States {a} and I wanted to see what it was like. Until then, our small oilfield in Tselfat in northern Morocco was the only one I knew anything about.

"When out ship arrived in New York, I could not see what was behind the amazing wall of glass and steel rising up next to the port. Soon our boat was heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. I knew we were getting close to Texas when the cargo ship started zigzagging between oil derricks and platforms built out in the middle of the sea. {b} There were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see! Some of them were from the old days when they still used wood.

"I stayed on deck until we came to a closed bay called Sabine Lake and finally pulled into Port Arthur. That was where I got off.

"I was struck dumb by what I saw! In Morocco we say Houston is the Mecca for petroleum, but still I had never imagined that for Texas extracting oil would be as important as growing dates for Tifoultout. There were oil derricks everywhere I looked! I left Port Arthur and went through a place called Baytown. Refineries and chemical factories lined the road for twenty miles with no room for even a tree! Everything in the entire region revolved around the oil business! Anyone who wanted to be an oilman could find whatever he needed to get started right by the side of the road, where people were selling old pieces of drilling platforms, pumps, drums, beat-up oil tanks, and other used equipment.

"Soon I arrived in Houston. I had told myself this city would be as hard to fathom as New York, which I had seen only from a distance, so I was prepared for some big surprises - but not for what I saw when I got there. It seemed as if the city had been built not for Texans, but for cars! Cars moved along big roads and super-wide highways in a vast grid. The endless procession of them seemed to be driven by some unearthly force. There were some very high buildings jutting up in the center, and the city spread so far and wide that you could not see the end of it. Not a soul was stirring - only cars. If I had come from another planet - and, coming from the backcountry of Morocco, I very nearly had - I might easily think that cars were the creatures who inhabited this strange place, and that the people riding in them were their brains, portable brains that could be moved from one vehicle to another or from a vehicle into a building. Brains were also shut up inside the city's buildings in a network of air-conditioned spaces - many of them even connected by underground tunnels - so that everything could be maintained at a constant temperature.

"Southern Morocco may be a land of sand and stone, but there was no doubt that Houston was a land of concrete and asphalt inhabited by a mechanical species! This was brought home to me in a striking manner on my very first night when I left my hotel to get some air. I had only walked a few steps along the street when a police car pulled up next to me. One of its two occupants, who actually got out of his car, asked me for identification. Being out without benefit of metal seemed, at the very least, suspicious to him. He asked me what I was doing. To the man in uniform, the very fact of walking seemed to suggest criminal intent.

"Back in my hotel, I tried to make sense of it all. I was having a difficult time believing what I had seen on my first day in Houston. How could the people of Texas, who used to be so proud of riding horseback across the open range, be content to move from place to place only in air-conditioned vehicles, confined to endless strips of asphalt? I had expected to find something of the atmosphere of the Westerns that I had seen as a boy in Marrakech. I began to understand that Houston was more than just a Mecca for petroleum - everything in town was run by the fuel derived from this liquid. I felt as if I were caught in a system that was completely dependent on energy drawn from the depths of the Earth. I soon realized that without oil, life in Houston would be nothing like what I was seeing now; people wouldn't even be living there.

"What surprised me most was how no one seemed to think about tomorrow. Did Texans not realize how precarious and unnatural their lives had become, how they were cut off from their own reality as human beings? They were completely dependent on resources that will eventually run out. Even I know that oil wells do not last forever. Our little oilfield in Tselfat was sucked dry by hungry oilmen in just a few years. Texans have based their entire existence on a resource that will one day disappear! Eskimos would never build an igloo on a floating iceberg! I thought about Marrakech. It had been built before the widespread discovery of these magic fuels. If oil disappeared, the city would suffer but still go on; people could go back to their former ways. Marrakech, Fez, and even Casablanca had a human dimension, but Houston had the feel of a ghost town even though it was still full of people.

"That same night, I sent a postcard to my family. The picture showed lines of cars moving across the city. Although it was daytime, they were driving with their lights on, probably to show they were alive. On the card I wrote, 'Cars lead a good life in Houston.' I thought my brothers and sisters would like the picture and we could talk about it when I got home.

"Of course I knew that this was just a first impression of Texas and that the people there were as real as the people of the Atlas Mountains. I knew that, behind their tinted windows they were still thinking - some of them even a lot like pioneers. All the same, I couldn't help believing that these people, who depended on fossil fuel for everything in their Eves, were so out of touch with Nature and the world around them that they would never be able to get back to it. I remember vividly that during the trip, I had trouble imagining anything that I might have in common with them, any thoughts we might be able to share. I know we are of the same species, but we don't face the same challenges or have the same options. If Darwin is right, I would be willing to bet that the people I saw in Houston are evolving on a different track than I am. In Man's war against Nature, Nature may still have the last word, and we may all have to return to the path of simplicity. What will the Texans do then? They can't keep building masses of steel and concrete forever because the energy sources that support them will one day be gone."

During my short stay at the casbah hotel, I had many interesting conversations with Abdel. Finding myself in Morocco a dozen or so years later, I passed through his village hoping to see him, but he was no longer there. The inn's new manager told me he had left his simple life in Tifoultout to become a teacher in Marrakech. I was sorry to hear it. I never returned to Tifoultout and never saw Abdel again.


{a} In 2002, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental organization, identified Texas as the state with the highest level of consumption of hydrocarbons in the US. California, also a large energy consumer, has a larger population than Texas, but was found to consume forty percent fewer hydrocarbons than Texas.

{b} In the Gulf of Mexico along an approximate 250-mile long zone located 95 miles off the coast of Louisiana between the Mississippi Delta and Sabine Lake, lie over one hundred natural gas and oil off-shore rigs. Over 20,000 miles of pipelines crisscross the region, connecting these production platforms to land and water-based natural gas and oil storage facilities. These storage facilities are connected, in turn, to thirty percent of the nation's refineries, as well as a broad range of petrochemical manufacturers. Other pipelines transfer crude, refined, and processed petrochemicals to Louisiana ports, tanker-truck fleets, and rail carriers for distribution.

Bill Totten


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