We’re Not Addicted to Oil

The problem is, some say, we’re addicted to oil. Even George Bush the oil man said that.

The word addiction connotes moral judgment, especially for a born-again Christian like Bush, who actually is an addict, and who found the strength to abjure his drugs of choice (cocaine, alcohol) in the Lord.

Good for George, but it’s a bad analogy, inaccurate and dangeroTebow thanks the Lord for his touchdownus.

First, it points to Jesus as the solution to the problem. Jesus is not going to get us off oil, or stop man-made climate change. He’s too busy helping million-dollar pro football players score touchdowns.

Seriously, it’s fine if your faith in Jesus motivates you to constructive social action, like marching to stop the Keystone XL pipeline or to divest your university of fossil-fuel holdings. In fact, it’s admirable. The climate problem is so large, so urgent, and so weighted with historical, cultural, and economic inertia that religious motivation may be our only hope. It played that role in the abolition of slavery, a successful if violent episode, and in the temperance movement, which didn’t merely fail, but created unintended consequences such as organized crime that plague us to this day. (So it’s not necessarily a good hope.)

But waiting for divine intervention is an excuse to carry on blithely, and the rest of us be damned.

Second, it limits the solution to individual initiative, like charity. Global warming is not an issue of personal morality. To the extent it’s a moral issue, it’s one of collective morality, like slavery. No individual could have single-handedly remedied slavery. I’m all for taking individual measures to reduce fossil fuel usage. I do it myself, sometimes to the annoyance of my wife. (“I was using that light.”) But incidental, voluntary charity won’t get us to the goal line, there to cross ourselves and point to the heavens with showy pseudo-humility.

Third, saying we’re addicted to oil is like saying we’re addicted to food. Oil is the predicate of the planet’s social and economic organization. We can’t scold babies for being born into this fossil-fueled world and shame them into giving it up as if it were a bad habit.

We’re dependent on oil. That’s different. Oil is the sine qua non of the Industrial Age, as ambient as water. Without oil, industrial technology would have been impossible. It’s even impossible to imagine seven billion people on the planet without oil’s historical role. You may argue that most of the planet’s inhabitants are blameless for the warming problem, because they have no carbon footprint. I agree there’s a gross disparity in carbon emissions between the West and the Third World. But I don’t think the Third World skates out from under any implication of responsibility if they import food or medicine, or have electricity, or cars or trucks, or use synthetic fertilizer, or have factories that make goods for export.

In any case, blame isn’t useful. I’m compassionate toward those who live lives of mere subsistence, who will bear the early brunt of the collapse of agriculture and international trade. They will be isolated, resourceless, and liable to starve.

But the rest of us won’t be so far behind. Once agriculture begins to teeter, a whole dynamic of social evils will be set into irreversible motion. There’ll be positive feedback loops, exactly analogous to what’s happening with the melting ice cap: less food, leading to less money in the economy, more hunger, less clear thinking, less willingness to cooperate, and more survival instinct. Less cooperation leads to less agriculture, less trade, less money, more social unrest, more violence. More social unrest and violence leads to a less stable economy, less agriculture, and more survival instinct. An on and on until the social, political, and economic structure we take for granted melts away in a sea of chaos.

That’s why we need to agree to alter the structure of our economy, energy system, and society. Once agriculture goes—that is to say, once the ice cap disappears—it’s likely too late. The irreversible positive feedback loop will have been set in motion, impervious to individual and collective action alike.

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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Religion

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