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.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Vast Variety says:

    Does Blizzard know you used a portion of the box art for Diablo?

  2. john personna says:

    Oil is a wonderful substance. It has tremendous energy density while being, for the most part, safe.

    There is no substitute for all of its roles. There are however substitutes and paths to much higher efficiencies in specific roles. We don’t always think about those options rationally.

    Why are hybrids punch-lines for the tragically hip (trey parker, matt stone)?

    There is an addiction in the sense that reduction can’t be rationally considered.

  3. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    The term “addiction” is being deliberately used to give oil a negative connotation, something evil which needs to be banished forever. And for all the talk of getting us off of oil by using clean energies (solar / wind / nuclear) and creating hybrid vehicles to eliminate our need for oil, it’s all a pipe dream.

    Oil is used not only for energy but also as a raw material in the manufacture of plastics (such as used for x-ray film or introvenous tubing), paints, cosmetics (I wonder if Obama realizes that he is kissing oil everytime he kisses Michelle), lubricants (including those used in hybrid vehicles) and asphalt that forms the surface of our roads on which those cute hybrids run, just to mention a few other uses.

    The problem is not with oil per se, it’s that we have so much of our own and yet we can’t produce it so we buy it from foreign sources. It’s the same as having a vegetable garden in the back yard but then going to the grocery store every time fresh vegetables are needed.

    Our problem isn’t addiction, it’s insanity.

  4. john personna says:

    Your logic is flawless Patrick, but unfortunately your starting fact (that we have enough of our own to displace foreign sources) is demonstrably false.


  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    John, your source is wrong or not inclusive enough. There is vast (estimated 1 trillion bbls.) of oil in oil shale in Colorado. Ken Salazar has blocked every attempt to begin the process of extracting same. When the automoble was invented we did not shoot all the horses because millions would have starved. It is not the job of government, as we have, by our constitution, to decide what direction our economy takes or what type of energy we use. That is simply not their job. We seemed to have traveled quite a distance from what I was taught the job of government was. I exchanged gunfire with communists in the 60’s. Hope it is not necessary to do the same again but if so, let it begin.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    Actually Patrick never said we could displace foreign sources. He said it’s a problem we don’t recover more of our own rather than import oil. Energy independence is not likely but energy security is a reachable goal. Energy security demands increased domestic exploration and production of oil and natural gas. Natural gas that can be utilized as a motor fuel as well as co-generation of electrical power.

    Rather than embrace natural gas as a cleaner form of energy that provides more security the government is throwing up road blocks to development. That’s indicative of what a mess our national energy policy is. We are no more addicted to oil than we are addicted to food and water.

    A hundred one percent solutions. There’s no silver bullet but there are a hundred ways to save or produce 1% of what we need.

    Oh, those hybrids. It could be because they are basically hair shirt demonstrations. VW makes cars that get better mileage without the green lining. Or how about just driving less? Or perhaps they make fun of them after being passed on the freeway by one doing 80 mph?

  7. Grewgills says:

    We are no more addicted to oil than we are addicted to food and water.

    Food addiction is not a bad analogy.

    On the poorer analogy front nuclear could be our methadone.

  8. john personna says:

    I agree that oil reduction has to come from many sources, but I’m confused about the idea that people who say we “have enough” aren’t really saying we have enough.

    And, no, the VWs don’t quite do it, real world:

    2005 Volkswagen Passat 36.7 mpg
    2005 Toyota Prius 47.7 mpg


    (The Passat was chosen to make both midsize cars in the comparison)

  9. john personna says:

    (With the Jetta you can step down a size class and _still_ get worse mpg than the Prius. It comes close though.)

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    The European Golf TDI gets 46 average. Since it’s European we don’t get an EPA estimate. It’s closer to the Prius in size than the Passat.

    Who said we have enough? We have some. Some is better than nothing so why not use it? It could be more than 1% of the solution.

  11. john personna says:

    The Golf is the same body as the US, with different smog controls.

    The EPA class for the Golf (all 2005s) is “small cars” in finer detail:

    Passenger Volume 88 ft3 (HB)
    Luggage Volume 18 ft3 (HB)

    The Prius has an EPA class of “Midsize Cars” in finer detail:

    Passenger Volume 96 ft3 (HB)
    Luggage Volume 16 ft3 (HB)

    The Passat is also “Midsize Cars” in finer detail:

    Passenger Volume 95 ft3 (4D)
    Luggage Volume15 ft3 (4D)

    … next time try looking it up. The Prius is of course BIGGER than the Passat

  12. john personna says:
  13. Rick DeMent says:

    getting significant amounts of oil from oil shale is a pipe dream actually, we can barely produce enough from sand tars and even that doesn’t scale well and would draw too many resources to be really worthwhile.

    The analogy to food is actually not too bad. sure we need food to live but too much makes us fat and pray to the sin of gluttony.

    The problem with oil isn’t and has never been supply, there are a lot of sources yet to be exploited. The problem is can we produce enough globally to sustain the kind of growth we need to fuel the ever expanding demand for economic growth. The answer to that question is decidedly no (for anyone who can add and subtract that is). Cheep oil is unsustainable and our economy is based on cheap oil.

    Natural gas is in the same boat, there government isn’t throwing up road blocks as much as it is saving us from our own stupidity. Drill here, drill know is just another way to say Drain America first, and that is a recipe for collapse.

  14. John says:

    The addiction analogy comes from the idea that even though we understand we have become beholden to governments that actively work against our interests, technologies that release chemicals that kill us and a resource that will eventually disappear, we continue to INCREASE rather than DECREASE our use of oil.

    Imagine observing all the negative effects of using methamphetamine on your life; your friends and family hate you, your skin is ruined, you have unprotected sex all the time, you have no money. The logical, reasonable thing to do would be to decrease and eventually stop using. You know what actually happens? You increase your use, regardless of the demonstrable consequences.

    All rational, forward-thinking people will acknowledge that oil will run out, whether that’s 50 or 100 years from now. OIl production has, or will peak soon, but worldwide demand just keeps going up up up. In the next 25 years, owning a car that uses gasoline will be about as financially sound a decision as taking up a serious cocaine habit.

  15. First: So this is the real problem? Obama’s choice of metaphors? If he could just use different words, then maybe we could work our way outa this mess?

    Second: This argument is almost exactly what an addict would say – “addiction? what addiction? I’m not addicted; I NEED this stuff so I can do my very important work!”

    You can find this article in just about any diaper you care to check.

  16. Jonathon Edwards says:

    The good professor may understand politics, but definitely not addiction. It is the case that some get addicted to substances or processes that are essential to life.when they get ‘sober’ they still have too use that substance or process to live. Addiction is exactly and precisely the right word and I don’t believe it to be metaphorical.when the deleterious effects of or over consumption of oil have been proven but people continue to buy had guzzlers, drive insane distances to work, etc.it is exactly like someone with a food addiction vpositing an all you can easy buffet. They know they shouldn’t, but they can’t say no. Precisely our relationship with oil.

    It’s retire that we will always need oil. Absent addictive behaviors around it, oil can be an important contributor – all the important uses of plastics in medicine, for example. But as long as we continue to ‘ fix’ with it, we need a meeting, not more oil.

  17. @Jonathan:

    I do understand that addiction is a complex situation for an addict.

    However, my point was not to diminish the significance of addiction, but rather to point out that our relationship with fossil fuels at the moment is worse than an addiction.

    I stand by the notion that a cocaine addict can, though he remains an addict, live a live sans cocaine without becoming addicted to a new drug,

    Our economy and society cannot continue to exist sans fossil fuels unless a substitute can be found. It isn’t the oil, per se, that we have to have, but it is the energy.

    I think calling this an addiction actually over-simplifying the situation, and that is with an acknowledgment of how difficult and terrible addictions are.

  18. Tim says:

    This is nothing but the classic rationalization that any addict would use to justify his actions! Of course an addict NEEDS his *insert substance here*. Of course he can’t live without it! It is only a rational person whose mind has not been twisted by the addiction who can see the damage it does and understands the alternatives life offers.

    And we have all the alternatives avaliable to us RIGHT NOW! We only lack the will to pursue them because we are like sheep following the judas goat oil industry shills (like this author).

    The point that oil is a raw material in many substances we use is nothing but a red herring. Oil is a very valuable material – far too valuable to be burning up just to travel down the street. How are we going to live without all those remarkable products that can’t be made out of anything else when all the oil is gone??

  19. CitizenE says:

    “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. ”

    Denial being a characteristic of addicts, may I point out that unlike blood and oxygen, we do not need fossil fuels to live. We don’t even need them to raise food, though jonesed out as we are, we appear to think–like an addict thinks, much to our long term dis-ease, thus, and given the planetary climate change such a jones has already induced (and you can take a good long look at how pre-fossil fuel addiction and post fossil fuel addiction have impacted that), you will find that this idea that we would not be better off finding alternative sources of energy that do not have such deleterious effects on our environment places your basic claim on unwarranted grounds for lack of backing. Freshman chemistry, not to mention critical thinking.

  20. Blogs can be quite the ride: I am both not taking addiction seriously as a concept AND I am exhibiting the classic signs of an addict.

  21. Donal says:

    Perhaps a better word than “addicted” is “accustomed” or maybe even “spoiled.” For about a hundred years, we have had ready access to oil – a very compact and transportable source of energy, and we have responded like the children visiting Willy Wonka’s candy works. Being so thoroughly accustomed to our cheap energy slaves, what will we do now that oil is a lot harder to find and extract? People did live without oil, without coal, too. But not six billion people.

  22. D. says:

    The more apt analogy is perhaps the opiates, which function because they attach to the body’s natural pain-killing receptors. Other pain killers can and have been developed, but we have yet to come up with a replacement for them, and in certain circumstances — recovering from surgery, for one — they are nearly irreplaceable. They serve a need we always had and always will have, but if used to excess the addict becomes dependant on the dose to function wihout experiencing continual pain.

    But in re oil — the crux is not really amount but rate. There’s a lot out there still. But for a price. Not only in cash but in energy itself, and that can be considerably harder to solve….A man who walks a hundred miles across the desert for a sandwich has burned more energy than he’d gained. Similarly, breaking up 10 tons of rock and boiling it to get a barrell of oil is always going to cost considerably more energy than plugging a straw in the ground in spots where mother nature’s already done the work for you.

    And meanwhile, to grow of the world’s economy requires growth in the rate at which we use energy…

  23. We could live without oil, yes.

    We could not, however, sans a serious alternative energy source, maintain our current economy and society sans oil. That’s the point.

  24. “However, we are not going to simply stop using oil, either cold turkey or through a twelve step program.”

    The thing is, at some point we are going to stop using oil, because at some point there will be no more oil left to use (or if you want to be finicky about it, there will be oil left, but it would take more energy to extract than it would provide us).

    So the question isn’t whether we are going to stop using oil, but only when and how.

  25. Bill says:

    Our “addiction” to oil is a lot like many people’s addiction to coffee. Sure they can go without it for a little while, but asking them to give it up entirely is a totally different story. They will argue that it is a net overall positive in their lives, but recently I’ve read reports that suggest that for most people coffee counteracts the negative effects of coffee withdrawal rather then actually improving their performance.

    In the general case, coffee/tea is an attempt to cram too much activity into too little time. It’s the not enough “time” problem that people are trying to solve.
    People could elect to do less and stop drinking caffeinated beverages, but they would have to CHANGE their lives (in some way).

    Oil is an easy way to solve the not enough energy/portable energy problem.
    There are technologically feasible solutions to these energy problems which don’t involve oil. We just aren’t willing to accept the increased cost or the affects on scenic beauty to implement many of them.