It happened today - January 10, 2016
This is not a story about a man named Jed. Well, not exactly. But it is about the gusher that erupted from a drilling derrick near Beaumont, Texas on January 10, 1901, and created the oil industry that helped make America a loud, brash, impossible-to-ignore rich person despite being, in the eyes of many, fundamentally a hillbilly. There is a saying frequently, though apparently wrongly, attributed to French President Georges Clemenceau that “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.” One “quoteinvestigator” gives a fascinating account of where this jibe seems really to have come from. But I think it has lingered in popular mythology less because it really describes the United States than because it so aptly captures the views of many Europeans.
For my own part I take the point. There’s a line from Dennis Miller’s book The Rants that “the French hate our guts. I cannot believe they actually gave us the Statue of Liberty. They must’ve been throwing it out anyway. Because these people detest us. They look at us and we are one, big, collective Jethro bearing down on them, rope belt and all.” And the comparison with Jethro Bodine is apt… to a point.
The place where I dissent, not from this summary of the European impression but from its justice, is that prior to that 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill, petroleum was mostly used as a lubricant and to distill kerosene. But finding it abundant, ingenious Americans (not just Yankees, note carefully) turned it into a world-changing fuel. Other people found oil eventually, including the Saudis. Or, more exactly, Western entrepreneurs found oil in lots of places including Saudi Arabia, and then the locals nationalized it. But Americans weren’t just out shooting at some food and hit “Texas tea”. They hit gunk and made it into black gold.
Notice, too, that the United States and then the world converted from coal and animal power to petroleum not because of the clever schemes and subsidies of government but because it stayed out of the way. If oil’s time has now gone, for reasons from resource shortages to “global warming” or “climate change” or whatever it’s called these days, we know we could switch to a new form, as we also did from wood to coal, through the ingenuity of free people in free markets, most particularly in the Anglosphere. We have no reason to think we can do it any other way.
Few things could be less like the Beaumont gusher than Ontario’s solar panels, for example. But as usual, given a choice between a tried and true method involving liberty and something speculative and so far disastrous involving coercion, politicians are plumping for the latter.
Jed Clampett would have been disgusted. And rightly so. In that sense it certainly is, or should be, a story about a man named Jed.