This column first appeared in The Environmentor, December 2005.

Why the Sky is Far Away -- a Yoruba folktale from Nigeria

Long ago, the sky was so close to the earth that a grownup person could reach up and touch it. You could even break off a piece of the sky -- and eat it! Some parts of the sky tasted like roasted meat. Some tasted like vegetables or warm fresh bread. Some tasted like cool, sweet, juicy fruits "Help yourselves," the Sky said. "Take all you need! -- but don't take more. Take plenty for each meal -- but don't take more.. Sky food is only good when it's fresh. I don't want to see sky food rotting on the garbage heap!"

So the people lived an easy life. They didn't have to plant vegetable gardens or grain fields. They didn't have to raise cattle for milk or meat. They didn't even have to cook! All their food was there above their heads, ready to eat. They spent their days playing games and dancing, composing songs and poems, telling stories and jokes. They had plenty of time to paint pictures and carve statues. Life was wonderful.

One day, a man decided to hold a party. It would be the biggest party the town had ever seen. He would invite everyone! He set out tables in his yard. He put out bowls and baskets, and began to gather sky food to serve his guests. He reached up. Meat from over here; vegetables from there; bread from there and plenty of sweet fruit from over there. Enough? No, he had better be sure. After all, there was plenty more where that came from. He gathered more meat, vegetables, bread, fruit. And more. When the guests arrived for the party, they were amazed. No one had ever seen so much sky food at once! First they ate, and then they danced. Then they ate some more, and played some games. Then they ate a bit more, and sat down to enjoy some songs and poems. When they went back for more, they found that the meat and vegetables were no longer hot. The bread was getting stale. The fruit had dried out. No problem, no one was really hungry any more. After his guests left, the man cleaned up. He dumped the leftover sky food on the garbage heap, and went to bed.

In the morning, the Sky looked down and scowled. "Is that sky food I see on the garbage heap?" It got angry. "I told you: take what you need, but don't take more. I warned you, I don't want sky food to be wasted!!" And the Sky got so angry that it pulled far away from the Earth.

So now, even the tallest grownup can't touch the sky. Even if you climb a tall tree or building -- even if you fly in a plane -- you can't touch the sky. But when there's a colorful sunset, we can imagine. Those red clouds might taste like rare meat. Maybe the orange ones taste like vegetables, and the yellow ones like warm crusty bread. Perhaps the pink and purple ones would taste like sweet cool fruits. But we'll never know now. Because now the sky is far away.


Our ancestors on every continent realized that wasteful consumption would have bad consequences. The Yoruba people blame a selfish party for the fact that now we have to work for our food. World society is currently enjoying an abundant lifestyle based on the unique energy richness of petroleum. Synthetics made from petroleum replace many traditional materials. What will happen if some day "The Party's Over"? Experts argue about when the easy oil will run out, and about what economic and technical innovations will take its place. Meanwhile, others wonder if it's a good idea to burn up a resource which could be manufactured into lasting materials instead.

Suggested activities:

  • Review various arguments about proven reserves, economic incentives etc. (see The Party's Over: Oil, War & the Fate of * Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg.)
  • Identify items in the classroom made from petroleum: plastics, cosmetics, medicines, lubricants, propellants, fabrics etc. What was it made from before synthetics became available? What are the advantages of synthetics?
  • Is any of this made from recycled material? How could it be recycled or reused? (vis Malden Mills "Polartech" fleece is made from pop bottles)
  • Challenge students to come dressed as much as possible in petroleum based fabrics, shoes, accessories: or come dressed as much as possible in natural renewable materials (cotton, wool, silk; leather or hemp shoes)

Note: after the petroleum has been burned (or used and buried), we'll be back to renewable materials.