Addicted to oil? What a dumb idea

The oil-addiction theorists are really disgusted by the desires of stupid, greedy, uppity consumers.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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We’re addicted to oil. It’s official. The Western world is hooked on the black stuff and Americans are the biggest energy junkies of them all.

This oft-quoted, little-criticised idea has been around for years, but there has been a veritable addiction-to-oil blowout since the BP-hired drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, sank in the Gulf of Mexico on 20 April, killing 11 rig workers and depositing tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the sea on a daily basis.

The most high-profile airing of the oil-addiction idea came in President Barack Obama’s televised Oval Office address to the nation last week. ‘For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered’, he told viewers. ‘For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.’

The addicted-to-oil thesis is not a dry discussion of energy policy – rather it is a pointed attack on consumers. Underpinning this idea is a sense that relatively well-off Westerners are too stupid and too greedy to realise that their use of oil is a bad thing.

So Gregor Peter Schmitz, writing in Spiegel International last week, tried to give some context to the risky business of deepwater oil production. ‘[T]here is also a simple reason that BP and other oil companies are drilling at depths of up to 1,500 metres (4,900 feet), far from the coast. They are servicing a greed for cheap energy and resources that fuels 250million automobiles on America’s roads, keeps the country’s countless air-conditioners running and provides water for fantasy cities in the middle of deserts. There are 300million Americans – around five per cent of the global population – but they consume around 25 per cent of the world’s oil.’

Schmitz clearly regards Americans as petulant children, unwilling to accept the painful medicine of reducing oil consumption. He also criticises the fact that Obama himself is pretty vague about actually introducing incentives and taxes to move away from oil. Schmitz puts this down to the electoral disaster that befell former president Jimmy Carter when he told the US electorate that they had to reduce their energy usage: ‘That’s not the kind of thing Americans want to hear. In 1980, voters drove Carter out of office. In his speech, Carter called for 20 per cent of the United States’ energy to come from solar power by 2000 and for an end to dependence on foreign oil. Today, only one per cent of the energy America consumes comes from solar power, and two-thirds of its oil is imported from abroad.’

Yet Schmitz was left standing like a novice driving some solar-powered electric trike next to that Michael Schumacher of Grand Prix-level tree-hugging, anti-consumer bullshit, Naomi Klein. In an article published in the Guardian last weekend, Klein declared that the Gulf oil spill is nature’s slap in the face to us uppity humans who had the conceit to believe we could shape the world to meet our needs. ‘This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.’

Klein argues that until the year 1600, or thereabouts, people saw the planet as a living organism, as Mother Earth, which provided for us but could also punish us, too. Then along came the idea that we could control nature, summed up by England’s quintessential Renaissance Man, Francis Bacon. Nature, he said, could be ‘put in constraint, moulded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man’.

Against Bacon’s rational, human-centred worldview, Klein offers us mysticism. She praises those ‘standing not in wonder at humanity’s power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us. And thanks to BP’s live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth’s guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.’

Klein’s view is part of a veritable carnival of irrationality surrounding the Gulf oil spill. But while only the most foolish petrolhead would argue that there are no downsides to using oil – it does cause pollution, getting hold of it is sometimes tricky and dangerous, and it will probably become increasingly scarce in decades to come – there is a serious need for a sense of perspective. America uses so much oil because it is the wealthiest, most developed nation on Earth. Americans live in a remarkable variety of conditions from the freezing winters of Alaska to the baking heat of the Arizona desert. Yet they are able to survive with high living standards thanks to heating, transport, refrigeration, agriculture and water supplies made possible by human ingenuity – and fossil fuels.

When we find a viable alternative means of powering all these things, fossil fuels will become a minority interest. The reason that we have not done so already is because the alternatives – like solar, wind and wave power – have proven to be technically difficult to implement and considerably more expensive than fossil fuels. Realistically, we are a long way from being able to stop using oil, coal and gas.

In this light, it should be clear that our use of oil is not an ‘addiction’; we are simply making the most of a fantastic natural resource. We might as well say that we are addicted to food because we eat every day. Perhaps as a writer, Klein is ‘addicted’ to her computer keyboard because she uses it so frequently. A more sensible way of looking at the situation is that she uses the computer keyboard because it is a useful tool to enable her to share her thoughts with the world. Then again, perhaps Klein submits her articles to the Guardian by smearing tree sap on to some homemade papyrus and then gets the finished scroll delivered to London by a team of friendly dolphins.

The use of the term ‘addiction’ is no accident. It is an attempt to psychologise and pathologise what is in fact the attempt to satisfy perfectly rational human desires using the tools and resources available to us. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a significant problem which will take a lot of human energy – and a plenty of fossil-fuel energy – to sort out. Both the companies involved and the US government must take responsibility for doing that. But the most dangerous pollution of all is the hypocrisy of the relatively wealthy, who damn the very things that enable them to live so comfortably and who would happily condemn the rest of us to a life of shivering immobility.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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