We need to ask what we’ve learned about the world, and our rapidly changing place in it, by studying Oklahoma from noon on April 22, 1889, to 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995.
As a starter, in between those two dates, Oklahomans discovered the Oklahoma City field, installing derricks throughout residential areas and on the state capitol grounds, another powerful metaphorical description of our nation’s addictive dependence upon fossil fuels. These now lifeless steel frames enforce the symbolism, answering the question “who am I?” Legislators peer out their office windows at iconography, not having to ask what it means to be an Oklahoman. The state’s petroleum industry was a source of pride and identity that evolved quickly into a sense of entitlement followed just as quickly—in historical terms—by a sense of “what do we do now?” with the development of Middle Eastern, Venezuelan, and Alaskan oil fields.
Once I got old enough to engage in oil talk, I heard this question constantly from my father, even on rides to school in the 1950s. Interstate 35, linking Braman to Thackerville, is a window through which you can get a veiled peek at this century of history in a three or four hour period. Driving south across the state, only periodically do you see an active rig in the middle distance; sometimes vertical stacks of drill pipe signaling a bit change. These rigs are likely to be portables, regardless of size. Gone are the archetypical steel frame derricks with their “crow’s nests.” Pumping units are rusty; like herbivorous dinosaurs surrounded by barren dirt and a chain link fence, they nod, or sleep, waiting, perhaps, for the call to war that requires fossil fuel from heartland reserves. Collecting tanks are rustier still, looking like miniature versions of some high priority Superfund cleanup site.
Had I known enough to ask my father what the oil business would look like in the Third Millennium, he would have again linked “foreign crude” to the lonely pumpers north of Edmond. We’ve learned, from studying Oklahoma, that oil is where you find it, not where you want it to be, and that great nations rise and fall on their energy supplies, their energy policies, and their wisdom in the management of their natural resources. We’ve also learned, from studying the geographical expansion of Oklahoma City, that humans will build, and build, and build, like termites run amok, with nary a thought to the long term consequences. Within Angie Debo’s century, Oklahoma City grew from a founding population of about 4000 to a sprawling metroplex covering four or five counties with nearly 1.3 million people, but in this sense is little different from most of our nation’s 100 largest cities, including, if not especially, those in the arid west. As a model for our evolving nation, this expansion epitomizes the “growth is good” mentality; at some point, the lesson that exponential growth cannot be maintained over the long run, especially with resources that are fixed—read “oil” and “water”—will be learned, again, and all indications are that this time it will be a painful experience.
BERNICE AND JOHN is available as an e-book on all readers.