Confronting America’s Addiction to Oil By Bob Burnett

Column: The Public Eye
Tuesday April 19, 2005

America is teetering on the edge of recession. We’ve run up a huge debt and, as a result, have developed startling vulnerabilities. While there are many explanations for our precarious situation—ill-advised tax cuts and wrong-headed administration priorities, for example—the root problem is our dependency on oil. Although we are barely 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 25 percent of the annual oil production. We produce 6 million barrels of oil per day yet devour 20 million. 

We are oil junkies, physically dependent upon our daily fix of petroleum. To wean ourselves from our slavish dependency on carbon-based fuels, we will have to go through a harrowing withdrawal process. The sooner we do this the better, as many experts are predicting that 2005 will be the peak oil production year for the planet. 

Americans are at various stages of awareness and acceptance of our addiction. Viewed from afar, the range of public attitudes seems remarkably similar to the five stages of grief famously described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance.  

Many citizens deny that there is a problem at all. Business consultant Max de Pree observed, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” President George W. Bush has defined a Reaganesque reality where oil is not a problem. This deception has been aided by the fact that many Americans already have enough to worry about—terrorism and their jobs—and don’t want to hear any more bad news. Many conservative Christians—about 36 percent of Americans according to Bill Moyers—believe that America’s problems, such as petroleum depletion, are irrelevant, as we are in the final stages of the “end times;” they understand that the rapture will happen within the next forty years and, therefore, they don’t have to worry about mundane subjects like oil. 

Another group is just angry. Dick Cheney is an example of an economic conservative who is infuriated by our petroleum shortages because he believes that “the market” would solve the problem if only environmentalists and other bleeding hearts would get out of the way. The administration’s energy plan is based upon supply-side economics, predicated on the notion that the U.S. has enough carbon-based fuels if only energy companies are permitted to dig wherever they choose, for example, in our national parks and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While formulating this plan, Cheney famously observed that, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy,” thereby ignoring the obvious: Even if we used all possible sources, America does not have enough oil to satisfy our addiction. 

Rather than escape into denial or anger, some Americans attempt to bargain their way out of the oil crisis; for example, they sell their SUV and buy a pickup truck. This is escape by means of rationalization: trying, as an individual, to figure a way out of the problem. The defect in this approach is that this is a crisis that affects all of us and, therefore, one that we must work on together. We cannot strike individual deals with Mother Nature. 

Of course, many Americans have simply sunk into depression. They feel powerless to change a situation where the Administration steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that our way of life is unsustainable. 

Finally, there are groups of citizens who have arrived at Kubler-Ross’s fifth stage of acceptance. Not that they have accepted the death of the United States, or the planet, but rather they recognize that America must confront its dreadful addiction. In organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Apollo Alliance, they are steadfastly working on ways to deal with it: inexpensive wind turbines, affordable solar panels, low-cost hybrid vehicles, enhanced public transportation, and so forth. 

Those of us who have dealt with an addiction, whether our own or that of someone close to us, know that the tipping point, the moment when the addict acknowledges that there is a problem, usually comes in one of two forms: There may be an intervention by loved ones who are determined to convince the addict that he/she has a problem, or the addict may experience such a severe crisis—a heart attack, divorce, or loss of job—that they are forced to confront their addiction. Because the Bush administration is unwilling to lead Americans in an intervention, the United States will most likely wait to confront its oil addiction until the price of oil reaches such heights that it sends our economy spiraling into a recession. 

This crisis is an opportunity for Democrats to initiate their own intervention. First, they must tell citizens the truth: We are petroleum junkies, who need to change our ways before it is too late. Then, they should propose a recovery program, a comprehensive proposal for a sustainable America. The United States can overcome its oil addiction, but only if we are provided with real leadership. If the Democrats won’t do this, who will? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.