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

Addicted to Oil
distributed 2/3/06 - ©2006

"America is addicted to oil" was the dramatic phrase in most news reports about this week's State of the Union Address (or, as the commentators are calling it, SOTU).

While he is apparently "clean and sober" now, in his younger years George W. Bush had very serious problems with alcohol and drug abuse. With that sort of personal history, I figured that George knows a lot about addiction, and all of the problems that it causes, and how hard it is to break.

So when the President announced that "America is addicted to oil," I had a brief moment when I hoped that he'd finally come to AA's transformative "first step" realization that "I have a problem."

Indeed, Mr. Bush does recognize our collective addiction, and he does know that we have a problem. But the problem that he recognizes and wants to address would get him booted out of any 12-step program.

Picture this scene in a church basement, with a circle of chairs for the Friday night meeting. "Hi, I'm George, and I got a drinking problem. [applause] Here's my problem. The liquor store in my neighborhood closes down some days when I need a drink real bad, and they charge me more than I want to pay, too."

That's the gist of what the President said to a joint session of Congress about our oil problem.

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Mr. Bush doesn't seem to be at all worried about the very real fact of our addiction to oil -- or, more generally, to fossil fuels -- as the source of cheap and plentiful energy. The problem that he is worried about has to do with getting the affordable energy that we need to sustain our addiction.

He started this section of the speech by saying, "Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem." It is a problem because the dealers who supply our needed substance are not dependable. In the SOTU address, the solutions that he proposed for our addiction were all about diversifying our supply and controlling prices. From his perspective, "the best way" to solve this problem is through technology that will "develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources."

He told us that this exciting new technology is the best way "to break this addiction," but he was wrong. We'll still be addicted. We just won't have to worry about our suppliers cutting us off, or making us pay too much.

If Mr. Bush were serious about our breaking our addiction, he'd know that the real problem lies in the addict, not in the supplier. In 12-step programs like AA, the starting point is with a confession: "we admitted that we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable." Other steps in the program deal with very difficult personal changes: a searching moral inventory, making amends to all those who have been harmed by the addiction, and a commitment to break free of the addiction.

There was none of that in the State of the Union proposals. There was no suggestion that there is anything wrong with how we're living, or the choices we make. There was no hint that our addiction is hurting others -- distorting international relations, driving wars, and causing climate change. There was no promise that we will live our individual or collective lives any differently.

If Mr. Bush was really talking about breaking our addiction, he wouldn't look to technology for the solution. Any addict on the long path of recovery has to make very hard changes, and the President isn't asking us to change much of anything.

He isn't asking anyone to conserve to drive less, or to turn down the thermostat. He isn't asking anyone to deal with efficiency to improve fuel economy standards for cars, or to insulate homes. And he certainly isn't asking us to change our national self-image as an economic powerhouse.

The fact of the matter is, the phrase about our addiction to oil was a distraction. That unexpected word pushed a very short section about energy into the news, and made it sound like a dramatic change in policy. But the fairly minor proposals that Mr. Bush named have almost nothing to do with breaking an addiction to fossil fuels.

The goal of it all -- a phrase that starts the three paragraphs in SOTU about energy, and immediately follows them -- is this: "to keep America competitive." There's really nothing moral or transformative about it. All that talk about "addicted to oil" boils down to ordinary economics.

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Developing new sources of renewable energy is a good thing. It would be an even better thing if we also added in dramatic new efforts at conservation and efficiency. The energy proposals in the State of the Union address are a worthwhile, if modest, starting point.

But please, Mr. President, don't pretend that you're going to transform the moral character of the US with some ethanol, better batteries and a lot of nuclear reactors. Our problem is much deeper than that.

The strong public reaction to the "addiction" word shows that we, the people, know we have a problem. Now give us the leadership to take us into recovery.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Back in August, 2001, I wrote a distressingly similar commentary about Mr. Bush's energy bill, "Time for Intervention." Four years later, in 2005, the energy bill passed in a form that continues our addiction.

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