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What Working in the Oil Industry Taught Me

Jessica and her husband run a farm where they grow and can most of their own vegetables, and butcher and process much of their own meat. She views this not only as part of a tradition passed down by the women of her family — she still uses her great-grandmother’s canning recipes — and not only as a personally satisfying way to live, but also as a cultural necessity in the fight for a cleaner, healthier planet.

Many of us feel buried under the overwhelming data surrounding climate change. Many of us feel that our individual actions are insignificant in the face of such a monumental problem. If we stop buying single use plastic, we say to ourselves, will that really put a dent in worldwide carbon emissions? The question itself is an existential crisis.

Whether Mr. Biden’s full agenda is put in place or not, there is much we, as citizens, can do. Mostly we can do what we can. The cars we drive, the items we have delivered, the trips we take, the clothes we wear, the plastic we use and then toss out, these things not only contribute to climate change, they degrade and destroy our planet in other ways as well. Should wind and solar and electric replace fossil fuels in the next 30 years, will we celebrate this accomplishment by maintaining our habit of littering?

When I asked Jessica about what her and her husband’s farm affords her now, it is telling that she doesn’t mention stuff. She becomes nearly breathless talking about community and love.

Her friends, she says, are “in awe.” They come to learn about pressure canning and preserving. “They get to experience the satisfaction of start to finish meal making, and doing it together is a wonderful experience that I love to share because I truly love to cook and feed my friends and family.”

In the oil field, a valued worker is referred to by a sly piece of slang as a “good hand.” Good hands knows their job; they show up early, take on the most difficult tasks, do their work well, and don’t complain. No one is a good hand all the time, you have to make a hand every day, but the phrase, as I interpret it, connotes the ideal of personal responsibility at the service of a collective good. It is aspirational.

Not everyone is going to be able to own a farm or grow their own food. But as citizens of the world, we must begin to treat petroleum with the respect it deserves. We must value it, like our very lives, as a precious, almost magical, but certainly finite resource. Then we can begin to do the meaningful work that nurtures our planet, nurtures our friendships, and creates lives of joy.

Michael Patrick F. Smith is a folk singer and playwright based in Kentucky. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown,” a book about his time working on the oil fields of North Dakota.

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