Skip to main content

A dirty relationship

I went to see Cabot Institute Artist in Residence Neville Gabie’s Archiving Oil installation in the Basement Stores of Geology last night (16 May 2013).  It’s pretty cool to be down in the depths of the Wills Memorial Building at the University of Bristol and I can safely assure you I saw no ghosts.  I started off by going into a lift and as the doors opened into the basement, there was an eerie darkness with a bright light emanating from a creepy corner.  A man dressed in white was in front of me and he was pouring a sticky black substance into buckets.  A distinctly thick, gloopy and dirty sound filled my ears.  I promise you it wasn’t a ghost but the image in front of me was quite harrowing. 

We use oil in everything we do and here was oil in its bare nakedness – black, shiny, thick, dirty.  I stopped and stared for a while, mesmerised by the horribleness of the clean white background being splatted with this dirty substance.  When you see oil like this, you know deep down that there is something quite sinister about it. I moved on to the next area, walking past rows of wooden drawers filled with items including fossils, meteorites, and geological rock formations.  These things had been dug out of the ground and were possibly millions of years old...just like oil.  

Around the corner was a group of people on hand to tell you about the exhibition including the organisers Neville Gabie (Cabot Institute Artist in Residence), Merle Patchett (Cultural Geographer at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol) and Claudia Hildebrandt (Curator of the Geology Basement Stores).  I was given a torch and ushered into a dark storage area with wooden shelves towering above me.  In every nook and cranny was an interesting oily artefact with a story to tell.  The accompanying brochure put a personal touch to these stories especially when you find out each artefact and story comes from a Cabot Institute researcher whose goal is to do research to tackle the challenges of uncertain environmental change.  Uncertain environmental change has in large part been caused by oil.  Cities have grown, populations have risen, people want and need ‘stuff’ made from oil like cars, mobile phones, medicine, beauty products, clothing, toys, packaging etc etc...Oil was once embedded in bedrock and it is now deeply embedded in our lives.

My favourite bit of this dark storage area was a row of bottles of oil from different places in the world.  All different colours and interestingly all different smells, some potent, some sweet.  The smell of the Arabian oil – a strong diesel type smell - brought back memories of my childhood when I would greet my dad at the door when he came home from work.  He would smell of this oil as he worked as a mechanic and it was the thick gloopy Arabian stuff that could have been used for car and lorry engines that my dad would work on day in and day out.  However much I dislike oil and what it has done to the planet, I cannot deny the fact that I came from someone who had his hands covered in oil and therefore oil is as much a part of my history as it is anyone elses.

And this I realised is what the exhibition aims to do.  It aims to show us that our lives are all affected by oil and in so many different ways.  We may like to think we are ‘green’ and doing the right thing but actually we have a deeply embedded dirty relationship with oil that is unlikely to go away anytime soon...
If you missed out on this experience and you want to understand your connection with oil, Neville will be holding the exhibition again as the ‘Oil Common Room’ with a few new art pieces added.  This will be held during BIG Green Week over two evenings in June.  

This article was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute 
Follow me on Twitter @cabotinstitute @Enviro_Mand

Popular posts from this blog

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet. Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%). Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability. This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example

1-in-200 year events

You often read or hear references to the ‘1-in-200 year event’, or ‘200-year event’, or ‘event with a return period of 200 years’. Other popular horizons are 1-in-30 years and 1-in-10,000 years. This term applies to hazards which can occur over a range of magnitudes, like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, space weather, and various hydro-meteorological hazards like floods, storms, hot or cold spells, and droughts. ‘1-in-200 years’ refers to a particular magnitude. In floods this might be represented as a contour on a map, showing an area that is inundated. If this contour is labelled as ‘1-in-200 years’ this means that the current rate of floods at least as large as this is 1/200 /yr, or 0.005 /yr. So if your house is inside the contour, there is currently a 0.005 (0.5%) chance of being flooded in the next year, and a 0.025 (2.5%) chance of being flooded in the next five years. The general definition is this: ‘1-in-200 year magnitude is x’ = ‘the current rate for eve

Coconuts and climate change

Before pursuing an MSc in Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of Bristol, I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. During my final year I carried out a research project that explored the impact of extreme weather events on coconut productivity across the three climatic zones of Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I managed to get a paper published and I thought it would be a good idea to share my findings on this platform. Climate change and crop productivity  There has been a growing concern about the impact of extreme weather events on crop production across the globe, Sri Lanka being no exception. Coconut is becoming a rare commodity in the country, due to several reasons including the changing climate. The price hike in coconuts over the last few years is a good indication of how climate change is affecting coconut productivity across the country. Most coconut trees are no longer bearing fruits and thos