Don't be crude: End our oil addiction

By Daniel Misleh| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Environment
It’s time to get the petroleum monkey off our backs.

Hello, my name is Dan, and I’m addicted to oil.

I recently looked around me to catalog all the things made from oil. The plastics in and of themselves were almost too numerous to count: milk and juice bottles, plastic cups and plates, office chair legs and arms, computer keys and appliance shells, bags and assorted containers, the car dashboard, the land-line and cell phones, plastic folders, files, notebooks, and even many of the fabrics that make up my clothing. The plastics list is endless.

Then there are the other conveniences that make modern life so comfortable: the natural gas coming into our home to keep us warm; the gasoline in the car and the oil to keep the engine running smoothly; the coal that’s burned to generate electricity to run a computer, keep the food cold, light the house, and bring the world to our home through the radio, television, and the Internet. The manufacturing and delivery systems of almost all goods and services are also accomplished through the burning of fossil fuels.

As we near the first anniversary of the Gulf Coast oil spill, I hope we can all acknowledge our addiction and—for the sake of the planet and the unpleasant fact that we will eventually run out of fossil fuels—seek help to get clean and sober.

Each of us in the United States, regardless of economic status, contributes to the fact that our individual per capita consumption of the world’s energy dwarfs all other countries, even the most developed. Our 4.5 percent share of the world’s population consumes 25 percent of its energy.

Granted, China, with 20 percent of the world’s population, now surpasses the United States in total energy consumption, but China’s per-person consumption is far, far below yours and mine. Americans dump nearly 20 tons per person of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in each year. The global average is about 3.8 tons. In China it’s 2.3 tons.

Fossil fuels are indeed a blessing and have been the contributing factor to the economic advancement of modern society, which is marked by the ability for so many of us to pursue our passions in work and leisure. Because of these fuels’ qualities—they have been abundant, efficient, and relatively inexpensive to extract and refine—we are no longer all required to till the land, raise food, tend livestock, or fish the oceans. Some of us can choose to make a living by farming and fishing, while others of us can build skyscrapers, design financial products, care for the sick, assist with legal problems, run for political office, or become church leaders.

But having traveled to some desperately poor countries, I also know that we are the few and the privileged. Most of the rest of the world has little if any access to fossil fuel energy.

They don’t have lights, heat, or refrigeration, never mind automobiles or airplanes. They are without a choice about careers. Too many are forced to work marginal farmland or eke out a living selling trinkets in the squalor of city streets. Their dreams of owning a business, becoming a doctor, or being of service to their fellow citizens are simply beyond their reach.

It’s not just the poor far away who suffer because of our addiction. As we’ve learned from the disastrous rig explosion and oil spill in April 2010, our dependence on fossil fuels has consequences that reach far beyond tainted water, oily seashores, and dead animals. Accidents happen—whether through negligence or riskier operations needed to reach harder-to-access resources—and people die.

The economic, psychological, and social costs of the spill on the residents of the Gulf are hard to fathom. Through the end of January, Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans provided emergency assistance to more than 35,000 people, distributed nearly $2 million in food vouchers from community grocery stores to affected families, and provided counseling for almost 13,000 people.

The volatility in the Middle East and the financing of terrorism against industrialized countries is certainly enhanced—at least in part—by the enormous sums of money we transfer in exchange for oil to those who don’t like us much. As we extract natural resources in more remote and more difficult places—including the deep ocean and harder-to-get-to coal seams—the consequences can be seen in mine explosions and oil rig disasters as well as dramatically altered mountain landscapes, ocean beaches, and desert vistas.

Then there is the question of climate change. As we burn these fuels, we are thickening the blanket of carbon dioxide that keeps us comfortable, which is in turn warming the planet, leaving our children’s future uncertain at best and perilous at worst—depending on which scientific scenario plays out and the speed at which we tackle the problem.

If we think of our fossil fuel consumption as an addiction, we might be able to draw lessons from 12-step programs. Granted, we can’t simply stop consuming fossil fuels without bringing our economy to a screeching and devastating halt. But can we begin at least to wean ourselves off these fuels through a tough self-examination or a “moral inventory” that mirrors the 12-step program?

Among the 12 steps, we might consider: admitting our powerlessness over the addiction; seeking help through prayer and meditation to overcome this weakness; turning our lives over to God and being open to God’s will for our lives; looking soberly at how our addiction hurts others; reaching out to other addicts and helping them through their own struggles.

“A day at a time” is an important slogan of 12-step advocates. To kick our oil addiction we should practice this same discipline. We need to embrace a daily mindfulness about the ever-present addiction and a realization that almost every decision we make has consequences for our planet and its people. Daily we must consider what we buy, how we move, what we waste, how we conserve, how we spend our time.

Consider: The average American drives 33.4 miles a day, about 15,000 miles a year. At 20 miles per gallon, each of us burns 750 gallons of fuel a year, more than 7 tons of carbon dioxide. Can I walk, bike, or take public transportation?

How much do I fly? A cross-country roundtrip flight dumps 3 tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Can I fly less and use modern technology to get more business done?

Heating and cooling our homes accounts for 20 percent of our carbon footprint. Can I dress warmer in the winter and drop my thermostat to 65 degrees during the day and 60 at night? In the summer can I be comfortable enough in a 78-degree house, rather than one that is 72?

Can I forgo Starbucks coffee, ice cream, or my favorite snack for a month and use the savings to purchase weather stripping, caulk, or a programmable thermostat for my home? Do I turn my lights and computers off when not in use? Have I changed my lights to compact fluorescents?

How hot is my hot water? Can I live with 120 degrees instead of 150?

Our food travels an average 1,500 miles to get to our plates. What can I buy that is produced locally and seasonally?

The packaging and processing of many foods has a much larger carbon footprint than fresh fruits and vegetables. The same is true for meat. Can I consider this when I go to the grocer? Can I cut my meat consumption to one meal per week?

All this conservation can save a bundle of money. When the addict no longer has to support his or her habit, a thicker wallet is a nice bonus, which can be celebrated with a tasteful and simple meal of soup and salad, maybe a local wine, and of course, lots of friends.

Finally, it’s important to remember that we are not alone. Thousands of individuals, families, and parishes have taken the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor at catholicclimatecovenant.org. These individual practices can be carried over to workplaces, schools, and church.

Can I get my pastor to talk about these issues in light of Catholic social teaching, especially about caring for creation and caring for the poor? Am I willing to seek or form a community of others who suffer my same addiction?

I’ll get us started: Hello, my name is Dan, and I’m addicted to oil.

And the survey says...

1. Church leaders should make it clear that it’s sinful to have a total lack of concern for how my choices affect the earth and those in poverty.

72% - Agree

17% - Disagree

11% - Other

2. In order to curb my oil addiction, I’m willing to:

74% - Opt for locally grown and raised foods when grocery shopping.

68% - Turn down the thermostat in the winter and up in the summer.

62% - Buy a more fuel-efficient car instead of a gas guzzler when I next buy a car.

64% - Eat less meat.

55% - Walk, bike, or take public transportation when possible instead of driving.  

54% - Set my hot water heater to a cooler temperature.

39% - Take fewer plane trips.

6% - Get rid of my car altogether.

22% - Other

Representative of "other":
"I try to purchase fewer items in plastic containers and only purchase items in recyclable plastic containers that are recyclable at our city’s recycling facility."

3. I think about the consequences that my lifestyle and choices have on the environment:

45% - Sometimes.

44% - All the time.

9% -Not often.

2% - Never.

4. Most Catholics I know seem to have opinions about the environment shaped more by politicians and pundits like Sarah Palin or Al Gore than by faith.

60% - Agree

23% - Disagree

17% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“Most Catholics that I know and meet seem to have little or no opinion on these issues.”

5. Environmental issues are political issues; they should not be made “religious.”

12% - Agree

78% - Disagree

10% - Other 

6. Any changes I make in my lifestyle won’t really add up to a hill of beans. 

30% - Agree

55% - Disagree

15% - Other

Results are based on survey responses from 163 USCatholic.org visitors.

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 4, pages 27-31).

Image: Flickr photo cc by Tommy Ironic