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"America is Addicted to Oil"

Twelve Steps to End Oil Addiction

"Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology."

-- George W. Bush, 2006 State of the Union message to Congress

I can scarcely believe it! Our President actually said something that I agree with! Namely: "America is addicted to oil."

How can we escape from this addiction? I want to propose the same path suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous and imitated by countless self-help groups since then, dealing with gambling, drugs, and all sorts of other problems. That path is the twelve-step process. So here are the twelve steps for recovery from oil addiction.

1. We admitted we were powerless over oil -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

Well, here’s the first problem. America has not really "hit bottom." It is a question of perception, rather than the objective problems we have.

America’s life has become unmanageable because of oil. Here we are, in an unwinnable war with ill-defined objectives in an oil-rich country; U. S. deficits are soaring; global warming is steadily increasing, with 2005 the hottest year on record; we are cruising for further disasters; and most people don’t even have an inkling of "peak oil" or what is about to hit us when oil supplies begin to decline.

But without the realization that the situation is unmanageable, we have not really and truly gotten to the first step. It’s like the situation of an alcoholic (let’s call him "Bob") who is getting bad job reviews, whose wife is angry, his children distant, but he doesn’t see the problem yet. 

In fact, the main problem that Bob sees he encounters at the liquor store. The price of beer has increased, again. It just keeps going up and up! In fact, Bob realizes as he reaches for his calculator and punches in a few numbers, the price of beer has tripled since 2001! If the price of beer keeps going up, at some point this is going to make a serious dent in Bob’s budget, because he consumes quite a bit.

It is within Bob’s power to recognize that his life is unmanageable now. He doesn’t have to wait until he loses his job, his wife divorces him, his children shun him, his health puts him in the hospital or kills him. Bob hasn’t understood this. He doesn’t see the damage that his habits have done to him and his world; from his point of view, the problem would be solved if there were miraculously to appear an unlimited and cheap source of alcohol.

The first step for America is to realize that all her affairs are increasingly poisoned in one way or another by the problem of oil addiction -- her relations with her friends, her increasing number of enemies, her economic difficulties, her families weakened by mindless consumerist distractions, her neighborhoods splintered by urban sprawl. That is what "unmanageable" means.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

And here’s the next problem. Bush, and most of America, believes in a Higher Power, but this isn’t what they are turning their will and lives over to. "The best way to break this addiction is through technology," says our President. Now technology is not to be sneezed at. Actually, once we’ve gotten through the other steps, it will turn out that technology is an important tool in breaking this addiction.

But to break an addictive habit, we need a change of heart, not just a change of tools. "Technology" is not the "Power greater than ourselves" that will save us; technology-worship is a form of idolatry, in either Bush’s religion or mine. We haven’t even come close to the second and third steps. We need to be looking at our spiritual resources.

Bob, the alcoholic, has found a "technological" solution to the problem of rising beer prices. Home brewing! He will buy the ingredients himself and brew his beer downstairs. The local liquor store has become an increasingly unstable part of the world, what with crime around the liquor store -- store clerks are increasingly hard to keep -- compounding the problem of rising beer prices. This is the problem of addiction: the perceived problem is just lack of supply.

We can clearly see that for Bob to resort to this sort of "technological" fix to what is in fact a spiritual problem is not the answer. Why isn’t it clear that this is also the case for America’s oil addiction?

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

What did the demon of oil addiction make us do? Now here’s a good place to start:

1. We have engaged in aggressive war against a country which posed no threat to us;
2. We lied about it to persuade the more cautious souls;
3. We have broken the law in prosecuting that war by spying on our own citizens;
4. We have heated up the atmosphere by contributing to global warming;
5. We have destroyed our neighborhoods and community life with the automobile;
6. We have squandered a precious and finite commodity on things which are trivial and often don’t even make us happy.

Someone has to admit that America has done these things. I think a lot of Americans are unhappy about the war, but haven't quite figured out why.  Even though "breaking the law" (Bush’s domestic spying program) is the most serious structural offense (it is illegal, after all), many Americans aren’t ready to acknowledge this as a problem because they are willing to countenance, in principle, such spying -- overlooking that the issue is not the spying per se, but the principle of the rule of law. The one glimmer of good news is that the press and the public are generally, reluctantly coming around to the view that humans have contributed to global warming. (The scientists have known this for years.)

None of this is sufficient: these things need to be explicitly acknowledged by the country as a whole. That means Congress and the President.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

We must acknowledge the past; that the things which America has done are wrong. Consider the Vietnam War: we did finally leave Vietnam, after killing about a million innocents, but we never apologized -- President Reagan even referred to Vietnam as a "noble cause." We have a wonderful monument to the over 50,000 Americans who died in that war; that is the extent of our regret. But where is the monument to the innocent civilians, to the soldiers on the other side, to the countless victims and survivors whose lives and bodies were torn apart? Who grieves for them, who remembers them, who vows that it should never happen again?

In the circumstances surrounding Iraq, an apology from the President would probably be sufficient to accomplish this purpose (and a change of policy, if this realization hits him while he’s still in office). I am a bit reluctant to suggest a trial for war crimes and other crimes that the President and his friends have doubtless committed, because while we need to be aware of what has happened, the energy which goes into the anger might be put to better use.

There are plenty of things that individual Americans are going to have to get used to which have nothing to do with Bush at all. One of them is doing without the unlimited right to cheap gasoline. I don’t know if the necessary realizations will ever come to America, or whether the Republic will be dissolved first. A universal or near-universal recognition of the facts relating to oil consumption would do much, much more than a series of criminal trials where we seek to pin the whole blame on Bush as some sort of scape-goat.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

The fundamental shortcoming is the blindness about the finite nature of fossil resources and the obvious inequalities which have resulted from our squandering of these resources. Conservation and frugality are two obvious and immediate ways in which we can remedy these defects. 

Substituting one addiction for another does not end addiction. If we started to increase coal consumption to make up for the lack of oil -- say, by a massive project of coal liquefication -- that would just compound the problem of global warming. Indeed, in perhaps as little as fifty years (with a "growing economy") we would then face the problem of declining coal reserves.

The U. S. has derived a lot of wealth from fossil fuel exploitation. The median world income per capita is on the order of $2000 a year! Try living on that kind of income anywhere in the United States. Our wealth is not entirely fueled by oil, but a lot of it is. The purpose of this realization should not be so much to inflict guilt, but to inflict responsibility. We may feel that we can’t do anything in the current political situation, but compared to Joe Worker somewhere in Asia who feels fairly prosperous on clearing $12,000 a year for his family of four, we are very powerful. 

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Now here’s the hard part. The people we have harmed are essentially the entire world, including ourselves. How are we going to make amends? We’ve gutted the budget to fuel our addiction to oil, and now that we’ve spent all our money, how precisely are we going to compensate for our actions? If we literally try to pay for it, we’re going to put ourselves even deeper in debt, and at the same time the only real way of generating revenue is through the industrial system based on cheap fossil energy.

Here’s my proposal. What do we have that we can give to the world? It’s our technology and knack for all things practical. This is not to say that other countries don’t also have this, but it’s something we’re quite good at and we have a lot of it. We can make amends by developing alternatives to oil at all levels, and becoming the leaders (rather than the reluctant followers) on the path to sustainability. Let China, India, and the rest of the world have most of the remaining oil. (Although, for the sake of global warming, even they need to get along with much less -- where’s that Kyoto protocol?)  Cuba, after the fall of the Soviet Union which supplied most of her oil, went almost overnight to quite minimal use of oil. If Cuba can do it, we can do it.

We’ll research this thing as if our lives depended on it (and they may). We’ll feed and shelter our citizens and give them all useful jobs. We’ll figure out how it’s going to work, and we’ll do without in the meantime. And then we’ll share with the other countries the technologies and ideas that we’ve developed.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of HIs will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to the other oil-addicted peoples of the world, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This cannot be a one-time solution to the problems that have been created by oil addiction. We need to figure out how we arrived at this addiction, and change that, too. This means that we need to find ways other than the standard industrial model for development.

We need to be aware of our true position in nature. Oil addiction is just one form of a general blindness to nature, which is especially devastating given our capacity to destroy it and ourselves. We can’t just loot and pillage the earth’s resources, overpopulate ourselves beyond the earth’s capacity to support us, torture and kill all the animals, and expect that things will always be fine. Free enterprise is great, but someone needs to figure out the ground rules within which individual initiative can have free rein.

"Reverence for life," to quote Albert Schweitzer, might be a good place to start. There needs to be a fundamental change in the way human civilization works. It needs to be global, it needs to be local, and it needs to start now.

Keith Akers
February 2, 2006 (slightly revised February 4)