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Consider Your Barrels

Turn on CNBC or tune into the energy sector and I'd venture a guess that you'll hear the term "barrels of oil" within a few hours, certainly that day.

It is, after all, the universal measurement of oil. Oil leaks are measured in barrels; global oil demand in 2020 will be 91.3 million barrels.

These mind-bogglingly large quantities of barrels conjure up visions of warehouses filled with barrels stacked stories high, waiting eagerly to be used as gas for your morning commute or travel for your Parisian getaway.

But guess what?

Oil barrels aren't real.

At least they’re not used. The Atlantic published an article in September 2017 about the oil barrel, a leaky and expensive shipping container. The barrels were originally wine casks, but evolved to be more costly than the 42 gallons of oil they each held. The development and use of tanker boats and pipelines have been specifically to eliminate the need for barrel transport.

What fascinates me is how the terminology and the physical oil barrel have become two distinct entities.

"Oil companies needed barrels, but they didn't want them."

Barrels exist as a concept, no longer physically serving the need for which they served. My visions become imaginary barrels stacked in an imaginary barrel warehouse. Barrels aren't used to transport oil, but the moniker remains. Barrels simplify economic structures in a unified language.

[At a large scale, this is the concept of social reality. The world is real to you. We have social structures and physical borders that are real by our own creation. It's one of the superpowers of the brain to understand this social reality. But I digress...]

Where else does this separation exist between perpetuated concept and physical reality?

One simple example of a concept buried in an old reality is in a phrase we know and love: "roll up the window."

This also exists within inefficient business systems that haven't scaled up with revenue or work output; these are corporate relics that no longer directly serve the original purpose but are suitable and understood by the masses.

It’s important to take time to challenge these disparities. To ask, "Does barrel make the most sense to use? What could make this be better?"

One of my pandemic pastimes has been listening to stories of major transitions; these are stories of recognition, when new systems replaced old.

The end of the calendar year and the continued pandemic offer time to reconsider concepts in our personal and professional lives that, like the oil barrel of the 19th century, served a purpose, but that may, like the oil barrel term today, be a relic of a former era.


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