Oil Addiction?

Responding to the ever-deepening crisis of the BP spill, Andrew Sullivan writes the following:

[Y]ou have to be emotionally and spiritually dead not to watch this and not feel some deep qualms about what our civilization is doing to its environment and to itself. The addiction metaphor – even used by George W. Bush by the end of his term – is the only apposite one. We’re like junkies trying to find a new vein. It keeps us alive and growing, but that simply brings into sharper focus the moral and spiritual costs of exploitation of the earth rather than prudent stewardship.

To sharpen the point, I’d say the impending loss of the gulf is a bit reminiscent of the closing scenes in the film “Requiem for a Dream,” where an addict’s arm is at stake. But another conservative, Jeff Jacoby, takes the following position:

[In 1974,] psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote in The New York Times that “oil addiction is equivalent to drug addiction.’’ But it’s not. . . . Americans consume oil not because they are “addicted’’ to it, but because it enriches their lives, making possible prosperity, comfort, and mobility that would have been all but unimaginable just a few generations ago. . . . The United States consumes more than 300 billion gallons of oil per year, nearly two-thirds of it imported. . . . What we have isn’t an addiction, but a blessing.

What I find curious about the professed “conservatism” of Jacoby’s position is that it rests on an attitude of entitlement and self-indulgence that conservatives seem to find repugnant in so many other contexts. As usual, Andrew Bacevich lays out the broader context precisely:

[Mainstream] Democrats agree with Republicans on the “concrete interests” of Americans: preserving what Bacevich calls our “empire of consumption.” ([Bacevich] borrowed the term from Harvard historian Charles Maier.) After WWII, the US was an “empire of production” – “we made the stuff that everybody else wanted.” So the country did not go into debt. “But we have increasingly become a culture that emphasizes consumption – limitless consumption . . . while others, notably China and Japan, have become the source of the goods we consume. There’s something fundamentally out of whack here. This disparity between what we produce and what we consume is simply not sustainable.”

To quantify matters: “Between 1995 and 2005, U.S. consumption grew from 17.7 million barrels a day to 20.7 million barrels a day, a 3 million barrel a day increase. China, by comparison, increased consumption from 3.4 million barrels a day to 7 million barrels a day, an increase of 3.6 million barrels a day, in the same time frame.” In other words, with less than a third of the population of China, the U.S. increased its oil consumption over a decade-long period by nearly the same amount as the entire nation of China began with! We continued building bigger cars, and bigger houses, ever further apart, assuring an ever-deeper environmental footprint.

Given the fungibility of food and fuel, we are effectively starving people to feed cars. The type of lifestyle that Jacoby celebrates may not have been a self-harming addiction as long as the structural violence it fueled was kept far away. Now it’s at the gulf coast. Perhaps Jacoby will “get it” if the loop current feeds tarballs up to the Cape.

Photo Credit: EtienneCoutu.

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