More Lessons from The Twilight Zone On the Importance of People

More Lessons from The Twilight Zone On the Importance of People
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In some respects, there is no such thing as a “natural” resource. Even the most costly – such as oil – have no inherent value but for the use that human beings and the marketplace are able to make of them. An episode of the television series the Twilight Zone illustrated that fact.

The episode, entitled “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” featured Albert Salmi as William J. Feathersmith, a mean-spirited tycoon at the height of financial success. At his desk late one night he confesses to his office janitor, who by coincidence came from the same hometown, that he longed for the opportunity to start his career anew and become rich all over again. Feathersmith then gets on an elevator, intending to go home, but instead is taken to the 13th floor, where he finds a travel agency he hadn’t seen before. Feathersmith quickly realizes that the agency's head, Miss Devlin, (played by Julie Newmar) is the devil. She offers him a deal, under which he would get to return to his hometown of Cliffordville, Indiana circa 1910. At first Feathersmith assumed she wanted his soul in return. But Miss Devlin explained that he had already sacrificed that long ago. Rather, she wanted all his money – apparently even the Devil has to meet expenses – save for $1,412. Figuring he could quickly grow that small horde of remaining cash by leveraging his knowledge of which investments succeeded in the intervening half-century, Feathersmith agrees with alacrity. Upon returning to1910 Cliffordville, he uses $1,403 to buy 1,403 acres of land – land which he knows to contain lucrative deposits of oil.

At first, it looked like his deal with the devil paid off. But then he learns that to access oil deep beneath the ground would require a drill that hadn’t even been invented yet, and wouldn’t be for a quarter-century. Thrown for a loop, Featherstone tries every way he can think of to come up with fresh capital. Unable to, he desperately makes another deal with Miss Devlin: She agrees to transport him back to the 1960s, in return for another $40. Having no cash left, Feathersmith desperately sells the deed to his 1400-acre plot of land. Upon being transported back to 1960, he finds that he is now the janitor for the company he used to own. And his former janitor is now CEO, having been the one to purchase Feathersmith’s oil-rich land.

Feathersmith’s mistake? He forgot that oil is valuable only if it can be accessed. If it is buried so deeply that no drill had yet been invented that could reach it, then it is nothing more than a bunch of black goo in the ground. That isn’t just true of Feathersmith’s oil deposit. Oil has made billionaires, created millions of jobs, and made possible the modern economy. But only because of the ingenuity of human beings, and the power of financial and physical capital. Crude oil is valuable only if it can de discovered and drilled, refined and transported. And only if it meets a market need, usually one spawned by another human invention, like the internal combustion engine.  All of these tasks have been mastered and financed by human beings.

In fact, the utility of all natural resources depends on human beings and their needs, needs that vary over time. Valuable resources often become value-less as we develop new and more efficient means of doing things. Early industrial societies used whale oil to make light and soaps. But after the development of kerosene and vegetable oils, its use became virtually defunct – and whales became a lot safer.

In that respect, no resource – even the most ubiquitous – is truly natural. Water can be used to grow food. It can be distilled and purified. But only if human beings use it toward those ends, and develop efficient ways of doing so. Sunlight can be harnessed for energy – but only if human beings devise ways of doing that, and come up with the means to do so. All natural resources have potential value, even if no one has yet to develop them.

William J. Feathersmith forgot that his ability to amass profits depended on technologies and methodologies he could not develop, and the talents and abilities of those who could. In other words, he forgot that no man can replace a market.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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