By DAVID BIEDERMAN
Pictured below is an outcrop (exposed section) of oil-soaked sand. Oil sands are naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, and a viscous type of petroleum called bitumen. The brown and grey layers are sand, sandstone, and clay; the black layers are the oil sands.
What a contrast it was to hold this crumbling and seemingly useless mixture of material in my left hand; while in my right hand I took pictures with a mobile phone composed of plastics created from similarly unorganized and useless organic matter. I remember marveling at how extraordinary it was that people invented methods to transform this gooey mess into fuels like the gasoline that powered and warmed my waiting vehicle.
As I child I was taught to revere nature for providing an abundance of the materials required for survival. But as I explored the outcrop, I recognized that what nature provides in abundance is almost always useless in its natural form. Genius is required to transform useless material like petroleum into petrochemical products such as the plastics, synthetics rubbers, and fibers, used to manufacture my vehicle and clothing.
As I type this on my laptop, surrounded by man-made abundance, I feel a profound reverence for the astonishing ability of the human mind to transform the naturally useless into something useful and good.