Is water more valuable than oil?

by Hank Jacobs


In this article, we’ll take a look at how our dependence on fossil fuels may have blinded us to the urgent need to create solutions for impending water shortages.


For the last century, our economies have been built around the exploitation of fossil fuels. We burn coal and oil to run our cars, heat our homes, make our consumer goods, and to be the engine of our economies. Oil has allowed us to live further away from each other, to start businesses, move goods that we make around the world, and get cheap products shipped back to us. We have tons of fun things to distract our minds with, for a relative pittance. What great times we live in.

For those who are in the business of generation and exploitation of fossil fuels, these have been boom years. Fossil fuels were present in difficult to fathom amounts, and we could burn them with little or no consequence. Economies loved the stuff, and the Earth could absorb it, right? The sky is huge, the ocean is vast, and there is land as far as the eye can see. This is all goodness. Big homes, sweet cars, fat portfolios, amazing vacations, kids going to the best schools, it’s all good. Even your average working Joe can afford to have a decent car, a video game system on a nice TV, and go out and celebrate every once in a while. That’s all good. Stable jobs, high profits, pride in doing the hard work to make society run smoothly.

And what about all of that pesky talk about the downsides of consuming fossil fuels? Global warm–, er, climate change? Ignore it. It’s not possible. Things are too good right now, and why should we mess with something that’s enriching so many people? Scientists can be silenced, data can be fudged or drowned out, regulators can be distracted or neutered, and politicians can be bought. But if we’re doing it in the name of the public good, how could all of this be bad?

As far as free and clean alternatives like solar and wind, well, that type of competition is bad for us, and we ought to tell a story about how those things won’t work. And even though there’s pretty solid evidence that we’re going to run out, let’s keep it moving for as long as we can, as we use scarcity to raise prices up. And the harder extraction becomes, well, that’s what all the money, military power, and influence are for.


What would we do without oil? Without fossil fuels? It’s scary to imagine. Society would go through a fairly large upheaval, but most of us would survive as society reorganized itself around different technologies. There would be new winners and losers. The ones who benefitted from the fossil fuel boom would have to reform who they are and what they do. They have been in power for so long, they have forgotten what it’s like to not be on the winning end. Looked at from that perspective, it’s fairly easy to understand why these powers would do everything in their power to make sure that nothing is done to balance the situation until the last second.

But without fossil fuels, we would survive. Which leads us to our comparison:



Living in Southern California, if you are the type of person who pays attention to things, one becomes aware of the scarcity of water. When it only rains one month out of the year in a good year (or two days, as is the case so far in 2018), mindless waste of water really stands out:

  • A wide expanse of green lawn being watered in the midday heat.
  • Leaving the water running while one does dishes or brushes teeth.
  • Letting the water run down the drain as the shower heats up.

These are just a few obvious examples.

It’s a thing you feel in your bones, in the desiccation of your skin. Desert living is strange and difficult, and quite often beautiful. Life can exist here. Flowers still grab water from the air and deep in the ground and somehow they still bloom.

When it rains here, the hills turn green and it feels like Switzerland. The heart rejoices along with the plants. But in the midst of that joy, there are the seeds of pain- knowing that in a few short weeks, all that lush greenery is going to turn into kindling for the potential brush fires to come.

We are locked in a bad cycle. Living water insecure in one of the world’s great cities makes one think dark, apocalyptic thoughts. What would happen if our dependent water supply got shut off? How long till there is blood in the streets?

Look at the example of Cape Town, South Africa. A desert climate bordering an ocean sustains an epic drought, most likely due to climate change. Sound familiar? It should. Except, where we had a year of uncommon rain to help replenish the watershed, they did not. And now they’re turning off the taps. This could very easily happen to us here in Southern California.

And we have other things in common, namely a political and industrial class that is unwilling to make hard, sustainable choices. Short term pain for long term gain is not the way of the short election cycle. It makes those in the positions of responsibility wary of making those hard choices. Ignoring the real world data, the examples of Cape Town and large swaths of the developing world, we continue to make short term choices for short term economic gain for those already in charge, and a continuation of our common escapist lifestyle.


Cities must learn to diversify water sources on the macro level, and we as citizens must learn to collect and store our own supply on the micro level. We can no longer wait. Infrastructure spending, such as it is, is not currently pointed towards water strategy and sustainability. Perhaps the example of Cape Town will wake us up, but history tells us not to hold our breaths. There is a long tradition in our species of being the grasshopper in the fable, and not preparing for the lean times.

The more we pay right now, the less it will cost down the line. That’s basic economics.



Not to sound alarmist, but it’s true. And we all know it, deep in the heart of all it means to be human, we know it. We are made of water, not of oil. We can’t drink oil.

You can take a person’s car, and they will find a way to get where they’re going. But if you take the drinking water from their children, that’s when things get dangerous.


And within all of that, there are great opportunities on both a public and private level.

  • Pipelines that transport water- rather than oil- from where it is abundant to where it is not.
  • Desalination plants that are run sustainably, and where the salt byproduct is shipped far from the coastline.
  • Businesses that specialize in cleaning the ocean of pollutants such as medical waste and agricultural runoff so that we can use it.
  • Waste treatment plants that not only make a profit by ridding us of our societal waste, but then turn that waste into energy and clean drinking water.
  • Wind and solar industries that power desalination and waste treatment with little to no industrial pollution.
  • As agriculture and manufacturing are the largest users of water, there is huge room for innovation and great profits to be made in new technologies that make human life sustainable.
  • Grey water systems that capture and reuse the water from our dishwashers, showers, and washing machines.
  • A simple bucket to catch the water as the shower heats up can be used to water plants and animals, or boiled to make tea.
  • And finally, we can learn from those plants and animals that survive on less water, using biomimicry to build new technologies that are as old as time. These include fog catching, and cisterns that capture rain water and filter it, to take advantage of the rain when it does come.

For those who say that what we do doesn’t matter, that unless the big agriculture and manufacturing users don’t cut back, our drop in the bucket is meaningless, this writer proposes this:

The most important element in all of it is to re-tell the story of what water is to us. Water is sacred, and should not become a commodity. The more we value such water as we have, the better choices we’ll make around it. We make our choices based on the stories we believe.

This world was here before us, and it will adjust again if we kill ourselves off. But we don’t have to. Local solutions to local problems, working in concert with bold, courageous plans on the national and international level can make this world a great place to live not only for current generations, but for the ones who come after us.

We humans need to develop a new set of best practices, both as economical and ecological stewards of this miracle that is humanity’s run on planet Earth.


Is water more valuable than oil? Yes, yes, and yes.


Some of the research for this article came from these excellent humans.



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