Adapted from a broadcast from June 2006
Around the country this summer, everyone had pretty much gotten used to playing about three dollars a gallon for gasoline. When or if the price would up or down, nobody could say, apparently. But while the price of gas was high, it wasn't high enough to get people to seriously change their habits of energy consumption. We are still in denial about the problems of the coming energy crises.
And so we look for leadership and vision to help us out of our overindulgences. President Bush, of course, who admits, in a previous life, to indulging in the unhealthy consumption of liquid refreshment, called it like he saw it in his 2006 State of the Union address:
“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.”
Hmm: The best way to break addiction is through technology. It seems to me that, when the president uses the addiction metaphor, he’s actually steering the argument away from technology. People, like the president – credit to him – who decide to quit drinking often do so without any outside help, professional counseling, or support group meetings. That’s 70 percent of those who quit. No technology involved. So the problem of addiction is as much a psychological, or emotional, or spiritual problem as a material one.
Following the President’s cue, but forgetting his idea of technology, let’s borrow from the literature of addiction to craft a national policy of recovery – recovery from our oil addiction. This recovery program involves, as you might have guessed, 12 steps:
1. We, the people of the United States of America, admitted we were powerless over cheap and plentiful fossil fuels - that our lives had become unsustainable. Price spikes after hurricanes, wars in the Middle East, traffic, pollution, rolling brownouts -- need I say more?
2. Came to believe that an energy policy greater than ourselves could restore us to balance. Bigger than our individual wants, bigger than our consumer society, bigger than our might making it right, we need an approach to energy that shows humility and concern for other nations.
3. Made a decision to turn our future and our economy over to the care of the Earth as science understands things like global warming, population growth, and planetary resources. So let’s get the politics out of science and admit that global warming is happening, and other things that 95 percent of real scientists agree upon.
4. Made a searching and fearless economic and ethical inventory of our energy use. Which means: Do you really need that Hummer for the weekend? Is “one person, one car” a viable transportation model for everybody?
5. Admitted to the Earth, to ourselves, and to every human being on the planet the exact nature of our wrongs. Time to fess up, America. Twenty percent of the resources consumed, five percent of the population. I think that qualifies as gluttony, right?
6. Were entirely ready to elect a government and change our habits to remove these defects of character. This is the tricky part – finding the right person or group of people who can tell the truth in the right way, an offer a vision of a solution that everyone can get behind.
7. Humbly asked each other for the patience to remove our shortcomings. It will take most Americans a long time to get used to riding on buses and trains with each other.
8. Made a list of all the people, nations, and systems on the planet we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Where to begin?
9. Made direct amends to such people and places wherever possible, except when to do so would cause more damage. So, Iraq – sorry about that whole invasion thing. We’re just going to get out of here and turn things over to the UN.
10. Continued to take an energy inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. Hey, maybe ethanol wasn’t such a good idea. Nuclear energy, other the other hand, isn’t quite as bad an idea as we thought.
11. Sought though scientific inquiry and social reform to improve our relationship with the planet and with each other, looking for accurate knowledge of how things really work and how we might sustain a balanced relationship with the planet and with each other. Which is to say – let’s not allow this to happen again.
12. Having had an economic and social awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other oil-addicted nations and to practice these principles in all our affairs. China, you’re next.
So I offer this program as a means to get us closer to the root of the problem: that we as a nation are a bunch of lousy oil addicts and we’ll do almost anything to get another week, another month, another year of those sweet sweet cheap fossil fuels. Burn baby burn.
If you ask me, it’s time for an intervention.
Postscript – 1/23/2007
As to President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union goal of having Americans reduce their gasoline use by increasing their consumption of ethanol by billions of barrels per year – well, that seems beside the point. Overall, shouldn’t we be reducing our consumption, not shifting it to another fuel? Is the nation really capable of "capping" its overall fuel usage as it shifts to an alternative fuel?
We can look at the history of other sectors of the economy for example of this supply substitution. I just finished reading Greg Critser’s Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. He makes the argument that, faced with rising food prices in the 1970s, the Department of Agriculture – of which the Food and Drug Administration is a part – paved the way for “cheaper” substitutions such as this ethanol-for-gasoline switch. Corn syrup took the place of cane sugar. Corn starch took the place of wheat flour. Fatty palm oil took the place of cooking oils far lower in saturated fats. Who knows what the conversion to an “ethanol economy” will create? And, more importantly, will everything eventually be made of corn?
Here’s one thing for sure: The price of tortillas in Mexico is on the rise, and it appears that our own developing energy needs are part of the problem.