Oil and Water

Rick Bass
Fishing 2009 Catalog

We can’t go back. An angler’s life is a braid of memories, casting always forward into hope. But now we have come to a point where nearly all the water behind us has run dry. Things are different. No one will soon, if ever, know the bounty we once knew – the world has changed, a once-smoldering world is now in full flames. More than ever we must work to defend fishing, one of the things that most engages our senses and passions, one of the things that makes us more human.

I know what it’s like to look for fish – that intoxicating thrill of discovery – and as a former petroleum geologist, I know what it’s like to plumb the various depths of old seas turned now to stone, in search of oil and gas. The two – fish and fossil fuels extraction – simply aren’t compatible, and the old ways, and old paradigms, no longer work.

Our rivers are growing hotter and shallower, and too often now our fish are diseased and crippled from a warming world still dependent on fossil fuels. We are all complicit, not just Texas oil geologists or Montana fly fishers, but all of us. We are already waist-deep in a stupendous cascade of collapses, any one of which most of us, including anglers, would agree are more calamitous than whether we’re able to continue fishing.

And yet: in protecting a thing we love beyond ourselves, fish – glittering creatures of fantastic perfection, with each scale perfectly balanced against the rigors of evolution – we end up protecting and benefiting all living creatures.

The old days as we knew them are gone. Those of us who are beneficiaries of enchanted memory from a time before the great diminishment began – and before we were haunted by the foreknowledge of all the consequences of our actions – now possess a duty to defend those waters that nurtured us and gave us those memories. Yes, it’s about the fish, and yes, it’s about us; but this duty is obviously about something else too, other than ourselves. Anyone who’s ever cast a line has already been blessed. We’re talking about something else now: the dignity of living responsibly, and with accountability for one’s actions, and with the courage to seek to change all the impending extinctions, against lengthening odds.

Where to begin? With the ways that our current policies of energy extraction despoil fish, and all our waters.

We can no longer pull fish from American waters and old liquefied or gasified carbon from beneath those waters. Sure, we can squeeze our thin seams of streamside coal harder, and suck the fresh water out from between those brittlecake layers; we can mix that clean water with sulfur and dump it then into our streams, in order to power our hopeless, helpless engines and dirty our skies just a little longer. We can mine the fast-thawing permafrost (releasing even more carbon into the air), can build incredibly expensive roads into our still-unprotected wilderness – roads that serve as funnels for slurry and silt into the habitat of bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. We can dam wild rivers and choke out the ancient sturgeon. We can continue to ship our Alaskan oil to Russia and China, as we’ve been doing, in fragile vessels that are ultimately no more durable against the increasing traffic of breakaway ice shields than would be ships built of folded-up newspaper.

About the Author

Rick Bass is the author of 24 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, a memoir, Why I Came West. He's a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Round River Conservation Studies, and lives in Yaak and Missoula, Montana, with his wife and daughters. He has long been active in the efforts to protect the last roadless areas in the Yaak Valley as designated wilderness.


We can carve out the literal guts of Alberta to get to the old tar within, fracturing and poisoning underground water-bearing formations – bypassing or poisoning the most valuable thing, water, in order to crack and suck out the very last of the sludgy marrow of our addiction.

Or we can say, “Enough.” We can say, “Too much.” As complicit agents in helping create the furnaced breath that now threatens all life, who, if not us, possesses the most authority – the most duty – to lead and affect that change?

We won’t be able to get it all back in a day. It will take billions of small steps: increased conservation, aggressive development of renewable energy, and – perhaps most uncomfortable of all for many of us – increased participation in the political process. But we need to act before that ability – like the living water itself – is further compromised, and taken further from us.

All species and all systems ultimately come to a bottleneck to which they must adapt, in order to pass through, or be lost. The quickening of the current that takes us to that place is here now.

It’s not just about the fish.