Brian Noeller

David Orr’s “Reflections on Water and Oil”


David Orr is passionate about the natural world. His essay, entitled “Reflections on Water and Oil,” vividly describes his feeling on the natural versus the unnatural. Orr talks about the beauty of water and the ugliness of oil. Water stands for what is good and pure in the world, while oil stands for the evil and corruption. Orr’s use of strong language and numerous descriptors make this essay entertaining, while at the same time the thoughts he presents make the reader think about what society has come to. It is the ultimate good versus evil story. Though some of his thoughts are exaggerated, Orr gets his message across in a variety of ways in his essay.

            To begin his essay Orr compares and contrasts water to oil. He states that, “Water makes life possible, while oil is toxic to most life.” (Moebius 17). This comparison sets the tone for the essay. The use of the word “toxic” gives the reader a feeling of how dastardly oil is. Orr uses this kind of “loaded” language throughout his essay. During his introduction Orr also explores the significance of water to humans, both on a physical and psychological level. Orr points out that humans are primarily made out of water and that the most important organ in our body, the brain, floats on water. Orr also states that humans associate water with healing. In numerous religions followers symbolize a cleansing of their soul by washing themselves with water. The sound of a stream is instinctively soothing to most people. Orr concludes his introduction by stating that water has given mankind inspiration for some revolutionary inventions like the sailboat and the water wheel.

            Further into the essay, Orr explains [N1] the place that oil and water have[N2]  in our minds. His arguments are both logical and emotional. [N3] He states that water is a source of intellect because people are smart with it. They distill contaminants out, treat it well and conserve it. Contrarily, oil is wasted without a thought about the consequences to the surrounding environment. Orr stated a fact that is true and stimulated the audience to reflect upon it.[N4] 

The body of Orr’s essay talks mostly about why he thinks oil is so detrimental to society.[N5]  He states that, “Oil has undermined our intelligence in at least six ways.” (Moebius 18). The last part of his body deals with the importance of water in our society. More time should have been devoted to water because it is Orr’s solution to the problem.[N6] 

The first reason Orr does not like oil is that it divides people against each other. Orr states that, “To guarantee our access to Middle Eastern oil we have declared our willingness to initiate Armageddon.” (Moebius 18). This statement is not far from the truth. Though Armageddon is an extreme and hopefully farfetched example, this country has shown a willingness to fight battles for oil to ensure our economy stays healthy. Besides international divisions, oil also pits neighbors against each other. Generally people with enough money to buy gas move away from the city while those that cannot afford it stay. Social divisions are created as a result.[N7] 

The next two reasons are related. According to Orr oil has made us less intelligent with the world around us, because transportation is so fast that people are less able to notice the natural landscape and ecosystems. People only see blurred images of nature as they either whiz by or fly over it. Appreciation for the natural is lost. At the same time oil has created a man made complicated world of agriculture that lacks the complexities of a natural ecosystem, it takes oil based pesticides and fertilizers to sustain these man made environments.[N8]  Orr’s arguments lose some of their validity because high speed transportation and agriculture are two significant reasons why our planet can sustain six billion people. However, it would be nice if people stopped and “smelled the roses” once in a while.

            Next Orr links oil to urban sprawl by stating that cheap automobiles have made it easier for people to move further away from the city and into suburbs that are usually built on land that was once either open or farmed. Suburbs also increase gas consumption because they are further out from the city and there is often little public transportation that goes into the city. Cars must travel many miles every day to get to their destination. This causes the need for more oil and perpetuates the cycle. Orr’s point is highly valid. Cars combined with low interest rates have made the cancer that is urban sprawl spread rapidly throughout the country side.

            Orr’s next qualm with oil is that it has devalued craftsmanship and hard work. Oil, Orr explains, has made it possible to mass produce items that were once individually made. Oil has taken the individuality out of goods and has taken most of the sweat out of producing goods. Consequently, once skilled craftsman are now unskilled laborers. Their art and individuality of their goods are lost. This argument is not as strong as others because Orr fails to recognize that it still takes hard work to mass produce goods and mass production is another reason why Earth can support its enormous population.

            Orr’s final problem with oil is that people use it recklessly with no regard for the long term consequences. For instance, automobiles pump harmful gases into the atmosphere that accelerate global warming and ozone layer depletion. There are millions of cars on the road that emit these gases and the people driving them do not think about the consequences. Orr is correct in the assessment it is obvious that automobiles are everywhere and so is smog. This Orr’s most factual argument.

            The essay is concluded with Orr contrasting water’s effects on mankind and calling his audience[N9]  to petition for water education in schools. Orr believes that water can make people smarter by challenging them to find ways to conserve and purify it. Water is the most important resource to humans because without it life would not be possible. To embrace water is to embrace life and all that is natural. To Orr water is mankind’s hope against destruction and he believes that schools should start teaching about water from “K-Phd.” Teaching children about water will cause them to have a greater respect for the natural world. If water education is taught throughout the ranks of education then the respect for the natural will never be lost.[N10] 

            I enjoyed reading Orr’s essay. It made me think of a simple and more pleasant world. I wish that I could turn back time and have mankind to choose a cleaner burning and renewable fuel source. Unfortunately, mankind cannot undo what has already been done. Oil and its subsequent technologies are going to be an intricate part of civilization for a long time. Orr would have been better off to advocate more responsible use of oil. Telling the reader why oil is wrong and advocating water education does not do anything to solve the immediate problem. His essay does, however, cause the audience to think about the state of the human race and the environment. Hopefully the two can coexist in the future.[N11] 

 [N1]Took out extra words to make the transition more consice

 [N2]inserted a better verb

 [N3]Moved sentence to before the examples

 [N4]less words and a better point

 [N5]Talked about structure and shortend intro.

 [N6]Deleted and talked solely about the body of the essay

 [N7]Deleted because they added little

 [N8]combined two sentences

 [N9]changed to a more professional sounding noun

 [N10]added coments about water

 [N11]Completly changed the last paragraph