About that Addiction to Oil…
While I am picking on the linguistic choices of the president, let me note that I think that “addiction” is the wrong word to describe the relationship between fossil fuels and our society. In the speech he used the term twice:
For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.
So I’m happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -– as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.
And, I would note, the first (to my recollection) extremely visible usage of the term came in President Bush’s 2006 SOTU:
we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper and more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.
The term, however, is inaccurate.
Addiction implies an unhealthy dependence on a substance that is having a deleterious effect on one’s person and that, once the addiction is cured, said person’s life would be improved. Curing an addiction means stopping the use of a given substance and walking away.
In the case of fossil fuels the issue is not addiction. Yes, there are deleterious effects of fossil fuels, whether it be emissions, things like the BP oil spill, or sending money to areas of the world/governments that may not be friendly to the US. And yes, we are clearly dependent on fossil fuels. However, the main function of fossil fuels at the moment is to make our society, as we understand, function. In other words, fossil fuels, for all their problems, produce a huge amount of benefit in ways that dependence on drugs or alcohol do not.
Our dependence on oil is not like an addiction to a drug, but rather it is more like our need for blood in our circulatory systems or oxygen in our respiratory systems. We aren’t giving up either unless something just as efficacious is going to take their places.
A cocaine addict can live without cocaine—indeed, is better off for stopping its use. An oxygen addict, to stretch the concept, cannot and is not. Now, fossil fuels aren’t exactly like oxygen, insofar as it is unlikely that we will be making a replacement for what we breathe and we can, at least in theory, find another way to generate energy. Still, our societal and economic relationship to fossil fuels is far closer to our biological need for air than it is like an addict’s need for a fix.
While in regards to fossil fuels we all very much want and need the energy it produces to run our cars and light our homes. We simply would like one that is cleaner and not substantially from foreign sources.
Ultimately, I do understand what the shorthand being deployed here by multiple persons is supposed to be. However, it is a turn of phrase that has continually bothered me, as I think it inaccurately diagnoses the problem that we face. Curing an addiction, difficult as it undoubtedly is, can be done. Indeed, it is done all the time. However, we are not going to simply stop using oil, either cold turkey or through a twelve step program. Instead, we need technologies that currently either do not exist or that are highly underdeveloped at the moment to replace oil, not simply to get rid of it. That is a far larger undertaking than “curing an addiction.”
At a minimum I have always been a firm believer that an appropriate diagnosis of a policy problem is essential towards solving said problem and, therefore, find that the notion of an “addiction to oil” actually makes the situation sound easier to rectify than it actually is.