Reflections on Water and Oil

The meaning of water might be approached best in comparison with the other liquid to which we are all beholden: oil.

by David Orr edited by O Society July 22, 2019

Water as rain, ice, lakes, rivers, and seas shapes our landscape. But oil has shaped the modern mindscape, with its fascination and addiction to speed and accumulation. The modern world is in some ways a dialogue between oil and water. Bodies of water make life possible, while an oil spill is toxic to most life. Water in its pure state is clear; oil is dark. Water dissolves; oil congeals. Water inspires great poetry and literature.

Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.

In a home it is the site that matters;
In quality of mind it is depth that matters;
In an ally it is benevolence that matters;
In speech it is good faith that matters;
In government it is order that matters;
In affairs it is ability that matters;
In action it is timeliness that matters.

Because it does not contend, it is never at fault.

(translation DC Lau)

Our language is full of allusions to springs, depths, currents, rivers, seas, rain, mist, dew, and snowfall. To a great extent our language is about water and people in relation to water. We think of time flowing like a river. We cry oceans of tears. We ponder the wellsprings of thought.

Oil, on the contrary, has no such effect on our language. To my knowledge, it gives rise to no poetry, hymns, or great literature, and probably to no flights of imagination other than those of pecuniary accumulation.

Those in the past who were good at practicing Tao,
Were subtle, mysterious, dark, penetrating,
Deep and unrecognizable.
Because they were unrecognizable,
I am forced to describe their appearance.
Careful, like crossing a river in winter,
Hesitating, like fearing neighbors on four sides,
Reverent, like being guests,
Dissolving, like ice beginning to melt,
Thick, like uncarved wood,
Open, like a valley,
Chaotic, like murky water.
What can stop the murkiness?
Quieting down, gradually it clarifies.
What can keep still for long?
Moving, gradually it stirs into life.
Those who keep this Tao,
Do not want to be filled to the full.
Because they are not full,
They can renew themselves before being worn out.

(translation Ellen Chen)

Our relation to water is fundamentally somatic, which is to say experienced bodily. The brain literally floats on a cushion of water. We play in water, fish in it, bathe in it, and drink it. Some of us were baptized in it. We like the feel of salt spray in our faces and the smell of rain that ends a dry summer heat wave. The sound of mountain water heals what hurts. We are composed mostly of water and so have an affinity for it that transcends our ability to describe it in mere words.

The Great Tao flows everywhere,
   (Like a flood) it may go left or right.
The myriad things derive their life from it,
   And it does not deny them.
When its work is accomplished,
   It does not take possession.
It clothes and feeds the myriad things,
   Yet does not claim them as its own.
Often (regarded) without mind or passion,
   It may be considered small.
Being the home of all things, yet claiming not,
   It may be considered great.
Because to the end it does not claim greatness,
   Its greatness is achieved.

(translation Lin YuTang)

Oil and water have contrary effects on our minds. Water lies at the origin of language. It is certainly a large part of the beauty of language. Water also gives rise to some of our most elegant technologies: water clocks, sailing ships, and waterwheels.

The wise use of water is quite possibly the truest indicator of human intelligence, measurable by what we are smart enough to keep out of it, including oil, soil, poisons, and old tires. The most intelligent thing we could have done with oil was to have left it in the ground or to have used it frugally over many centuries. Oil came to Western Civilization as a great temptation to binge, devil take the hindmost.

Our resistance lowered by the intellectual viruses introduced by the likes of Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. We were in no condition to fend off those introduced by John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Alfred Sloan, who promised speed, mobility, sexual adventure, and personal identity.

Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong
This is because nothing can replace it
That the weak overcomes the strong
And the soft overcomes the hard
Everybody in the world knows
But cannot put into practice
Therefore sages say:
The one who accepts the humiliation of the state
Is called its master
The one who accepts the misfortune of the state
Becomes king of the world
The truth seems like the opposite

(translation Derek Lin)

Water appears to be the weakest and softest thing in the world. It always conforms to the shape of its container. Pour it into a bottle, it’s a bottle; pour it into a cup, it’s a cup. Water is the ultimate symbol of the yielding and flexible aspect of the Tao.
At the same time, there also is nothing better than water at dissolving the hardest and most unyielding rocks. We only have to look around to see how water carved ravines and canyons out of mountains all over the world. Water is the universal solvent. Nothing can replace it.

These observations of water teach us despite a yielding, humble appearance, the weak overcomes the strong and the soft overcomes the hard. This is a principle we can all understand, but somehow cannot put into practice in real life. We still have a tendency to meet force with force. When someone yells at us, we yell back louder; when someone trespasses against us, we retaliate in full measure… plus interest!

Thus, the sages teach us those who have the strength to accept humiliation are extremely rare. Such individuals possess the power embodied in water – seemingly soft and weak – and yet able to overcome the hard and strong. If they apply this power to society, they can achieve complete mastery of leadership at the national level.
Such individuals also have the ability to accept misfortunes. Like water, they have the depth of character to contain adversities and difficulties. If they apply this ability to handle negativity at the national level, they can achieve preeminence on a global scale.

Thus, by embracing the seemingly weak and soft, one gains personal power. This is a truth that, at first glance, appears to be contrary to our expectations!

Oil undermines our intelligence in at least six ways:

First, oil erodes our ability to think intelligently about community and the possibility of cooperation. Its nature is what game theorists call zero-sum: you have it or someone else does; you burn it or else they do. Its possession sets those who have it against those who do not: states against states; regions against regions; nations against nations; and the interests of one generation against those of generations to follow.

Cheap oil and the automobile pits community against community, suburban commuters against city neighborhoods. Money made from oil and oil-based technologies corrupt our politics, while our growing dependency corrupted our sense of proportion and scale.

To guarantee our access to Middle Eastern oil, we declared our willingness to initiate Armageddon. We now spend billions in fulfillment of this pledge, even though a fraction of this annual bill would eliminate the need for oil imports altogether. The characteristics of oil and the way we use it and grow overly dependent upon it help shape a mind-set which cannot rise above competition for the sake of competition itself.


Second, oil undermines our land intelligence by increasing the speed with which
we move on it or fly over it. We no longer experience the landscape as a vital reality. Compare a trip by interstate highway from Pennsylvania to Florida with one taken by William Bartram in the eighteenth century. Where Bartram saw wonders and had the time to observe these carefully, to be instructed and moved by them, modern travelers experience only a succession of homogenized images and sounds moving through an engineered landscape, all tailored to the requirements of speed and convenience.

As a result, our contact with land is increasingly abstract, measured as lapsed time, experienced as the dull exhaustion of jet lag, which accompanies the need to find ways to seemingly “kill time” in close confinement.

Third, oil made us dumber by making the world more complicated but less complex.
An Iowa cornfield is a complicated human contrivance resulting from imported oil, supertankers, pipelines, commodity markets, banks and interest rates, federal agencies, futures markets,  machinery, spare parts supply systems, and agribusiness companies that sell seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

In contrast, the forest or prairie that once existed in that place was complex, a highly resilient system consisting of a diversity of life forms, ecological relationships, and energy flows. Complicatedness is the result of high energy use that destroys genetic and cultural information. With complicatedness came specialization of knowledge and the “expert.” Exit the generalist and the Renaissance person.

The Mathematical Madness of Möbius Strips & Other One-Sided Objects

The result is a society and economy no one comprehends; indeed, one that is beyond human comprehension. Complicatedness gives rise to unending novelty, surprise, and unforeseen consequences. As the possibility of foresight declines, the idea of responsibility also declines. People cannot be held accountable for the effects of actions that cannot be foreseen. Moreover, a high-energy society undermines our sense of meaning and our belief that our own lives can have meaning. It leads us to despair and to disparage the very possibility of intelligence.


Fourth, cheap oil and the automobile are responsible, in large measure, for urban sprawl, which conditions us to think that ugliness and disorder are normal or at least economically necessary. Where fossil energy was cheap and abundant, the idea of a land ethic based on the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” has never taken firm hold. This is not just a problem of ethics; it is a deeper problem that has to do with how poorly we think about economics. Sprawling megalopolitan areas are not only an aesthetic affront; they are sure signs of an unsustainable economy dominated by absentee corporations that vandalize distant places for “resources” and other places to discard wastes.

A mind conditioned to think of ecological, aesthetic, and social disorder as normal, which is to say a mind in which the categories of harmony and beauty atrophied, is to this same extent impoverished. It is rather like being able to see only half of the color spectrum. On the other hand, intelligence, I think, grows as the mind is drawn to the possibilities of creating order, harmony, beauty, stability, and permanence.


Fifth, oil undermines intelligence by devaluing handwork and craftsmanship. To a great extent the history of high-energy civilization can be described by the shift in the ratio between labor and energy. Economic development is the process of substituting energy for labor, moving people from farms into cities and from craft professions into factories and eventually into “the service sector.” This is not simply a matter of economic efficiency as some argue; it is a problem of human intelligence.

Thinking, doing, and making exist in a complex symbiotic relationship. The price we pay for the convenience and affluence of a service economy may well be paid in the coin of intelligence. The drift of high-energy civilization is to make the world steadily less amenable to the kind of thought that results from the friction of an alert mind’s grappling with real materials toward the goal of work well done. To the modern mind, with its ghettos of costs and benefits, expertness, efficiency, built-in obsolescence, and celebration of technology that replaces manual skill, any alternative sounds hopelessly naive.

homo faber.jpg

However, we may find reason to reconsider, on the grounds of a larger efficiency and higher rationality, the reality we are “homo faber” whose identity is defined by the close interplay of thought and making. Finally, oil has undermined intelligence because it requires technologies that we are smart enough to build but not smart enough to use safely. This is the gap between knowing how to do something and knowing what one should do.

Cheap oil divided our capabilities from our sense of obligation, care, and long-term responsibility. Oil used at the rate of millions of barrels each day cannot be used responsibly. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, and the dozens of other large oil spills like it, are not accidents but rather the logical result of a system which operates on a scale that can only produce catastrophes. Our mistake is compounded by the belief that the catastrophe occurred only because oil was spilled.

It would have been an equal, if more diffuse catastrophe, had the Exxon Valdez made it safely to port and its cargo burned in car engines, proceeding thence into the atmosphere, where its contents would have contributed to air pollution and global warming. Oil reduced our intelligence by dividing us between what we take to be realistic imperatives of economy and the commands of ethical stewardship.

The Tragedy of the Commons

As a result we become far less adept at thinking and acting ethically and far more adept at rationalizing and denying. If oil made us dumber, might water make us smarter about more things over a longer term? I think so.


To this end, I suggest several things beginning with an examination of contemporary curricula to identify those parts based on the assumption of the permanence and blessedness of cheap energy. How much of the curriculum would stand if this assumption is removed?

Education generally prepares the young to Jive in a high-energy world. We have shaped whole disciplines around such assumptions without stopping to inquire about their validity or their larger effects. The belief in the permanence and felicity of high-energy civilization is found at the heart of most of contemporary economics, with its practice of discounting, development theory, marketing, business, political science, and sociology.

Even the natural sciences largely are directed towards manipulation of the natural world without any comparable effort to study impacts of doing so or alternative kinds of knowledge to work with natural systems. Behind a great deal of this is the belief we can make an end run around nature and get away with it.

Second, water should be a part of every school curriculum. I would include, for example, Karl Wittfogel’s (1956) study of the relationship between water management
and despotic government, Donald Worster’s (1985) study of the politics of water in the American West, and Charles Bowden’s (1985) study of the relationship between water and the Papago people of Arizona. Water as part of our mythology, history, politics, culture, and society should be woven throughout curricula, K through PhD.

Third, water should be the keystone in a new science of ecological design. John
Todd’s (1991) Living Machines is a working example of ecological design. Education in ecological design ought to be transdisciplinary, aiming to integrate a broad range of disciplines and design principles of resilience, flexibility, appropriate scale, and durability. Todd’s work, as an example, is instructive in part because he combines good engineering with ecology and vision.

Fourth, water and water purification should be built into the architecture and the
landscape of educational institutions. The very institutions that purport to induct the young into responsible adulthood often behave like vandals. This need not be.


Institutional waste streams offer a good place to begin to teach applied (as opposed to theoretical) responsibility. Solar aquatic waste systems and similar approaches offer a way to teach the techniques of waste water purification, biology, and closed loop design. There are many reasons to regard resource and waste flows as a useful part of the curriculum,not merely a nuisance.

Finally, I propose restoration be made a part of the educational agenda. Every public school, college, and university is within easy reach of streams, rivers, and lakes in need of restoration. The act of restoration is an opportunity to move education beyond the classroom and laboratory to the outdoors, from theory to application and from indifference to healing. My proposal is for institutions to adopt streams or entire watersheds and make their full health an educational objective as important as, say, capital funds campaigns to build new administration buildings or athletic facilities.

What is the meaning of water? One might as well ask, “What does it mean to be
human?” The answer may be found in our relation to water, the mother of life. When
the waters again run clear and their life is restored, we might see ourselves reflected whole.



1. Bowden, C. 1985. Killing the Hldden Waters. Allstin: University of Texas Press.
2. Todd. j. 1991. Living Machines. Unpublished manuscript.
3. Wittfogel, K. 1956. Oriental Despotism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
4. Worster, D. 1985. Rivers of Empire. New York: Pantheon.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Water and Oil

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