Environmentalists like to say that we’re addicted to oil, but that term doesn’t go far enough. An addict can survive without drugs or alcohol, even if the withdrawal would be painful. But modern society as we know it would end tomorrow without oil. Oil literally makes our world go, from the lawnmower to the supersonic jet. If coal becomes too expensive, we can generate electricity with natural gas or nuclear or renewables. If beef is too costly, we can eat chicken. But there is no real replacement for oil, which is why we depend upon it so much—and why we hate ourselves for that dependence.
Photographer Kenji Aoki captured the power of oil in a series of photographs shot for this week’s TIME cover. For one photograph, Aoki poured unrefined Texas crude into a balloon, shooting the moment it exploded. In another, Aoki poured the oil along the inside wall of a clear bowl, and shot it as the oil glided down to collect at the bottom. Aoki captures the essence of oil, a substance that all of us need yet few of us see in its pure form, fresh from the ground.
Read More: The Truth About Oil