Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Time for Intervention
distributed 8/3/01 - ©2001

I can quit anytime I want to.

Those are the classic words of an addict. Hooked on alcohol, tobacco or heroin.

The addict, of course, really can't just decide to quit. Because it has gone far past a question of willpower and personal choice. The addict needs the substance, craves it, literally can't function without it.

As the addiction deepens, it usually takes a deep toll on those around the addicted one. Relationships are ripped apart. Finances are destroyed. Health deteriorates.

Sometimes, addiction leads into a downward spiral of alienation, devastation and death. Sometimes -- with the intervention of family, friends, co-workers and therapists -- the addict can break out of the cycle, endure the withdrawal, and discover different ways of living "clean."

Addiction is a terrible problem. We've seen it happen to people in our churches, our families, and our communities. We all know that the worst thing to do is ignore it, and hope that it goes away.

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Addiction is the image that I come back to time and again as I try to make sense of the vote in the House of Representatives this week on the energy bill.

We are addicted -- societally more than individually -- to energy, and especially to oil. In the legislation, and the debate, there wasn't even a pretense that we can quit when we want. We're hooked.

Our entire economy depends on energy: cheap, convenient, on-demand energy. We're literally unable to function without it. It takes more and more of it to satisfy our needs.

But the energy bill hardly acknowledges that we have a problem. The problem that is named is one of supply, not addiction. And so the House bill caters to the dealers with tax breaks, and environmental waivers, and direct subsidies. We'll even give up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, if it will keep that blessed stuff coming our way a little longer.

More oil. More coal. More natural gas. More nuclear. Feed the addiction. Don't try to break it.

And while we're at it, we do things that make it even harder to change in the future. We build more highways and create more urban sprawl. We put more SUVs on the road with obscene gas mileage.

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The House energy bill is a vivid declaration of dependency by an addict. Can we look the other way and pretend there's nothing wrong?

Just like any addiction, this one is having terrible effects.

  • It is distorting and bankrupting our economy.

  • It is ruining our health -- both the health of individuals and of the entire planet.

  • And it is destroying our relationships. This spring, President Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, because he believes the reductions in fossil fuel use will hurt the US economy. The other nations of the world have tried to intervene; they have tried to help us see that we can cut back on our oil-guzzling, but we refuse to listen. The most powerful nation on earth is variously pitied and laughed at.

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The vote in the House speaks about who we are now, and it defines how we will conduct our affairs for at least the next decade.

This piece of legislation marks a critical fork in the road for our nation. The House has already acted, and now it is up to the Senate to set the course. If the Senate votes for a similar set of policies, then the addiction will deepen, the destruction and alienation will increase, and it will be many years before there is another chance to try and break the habit.

The Senate, though, can do some things differently. That body can admit that we have a problem, and refuse to make things worse. The Senate can take powerful steps to encourage renewable energy, more efficient technologies, and conservation. They can say that there are some things that we just won't do to feed our addiction, and refuse to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge.

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But we, outside of Washington, cannot pretend that it will be easy for the Senate to do those things. Those who are most clearly part of the addiction -- the oil and auto companies, the state of Alaska, the Teamsters union, and many others -- have shown that they will fight hard to keep things going as they are. It has gone far past a question of willpower and personal choice. There are parts of our national body that are deeply hooked; they cannot imagine survival without oil.

There's only about a month until the Senate takes up the energy bill. Many groups, with a variety of perspectives and agendas, will be organizing for a hard-fought battle in September.

I know that many churches will not feel comfortable venturing into the conflictual political waters. There are people in our pews, and our pulpits, whose values and livelihoods are part and parcel of the addiction.

But this clearly is a time when the church must speak. I urge you: name the addiction, even if you cannot talk to the specific avenues of cure. Pray for the courage to confront a destructive demon that is ripping apart our nation and the world. Encourage those who will do more in their organizing and activism, and challenge those who want, once again, to "ignore the elephant in the living room."

The church does have power. We can do much to set a moral agenda, and we have well-honed tools for communicating with a large constituency.

This is the moment to intervene.

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Dante said is well over 600 years ago: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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