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Is an Undersea Volcano of Oil enough to slap us in the face?

May 3rd, 2010 · 3 Comments

We have to wonder what it might take to get American society to recognize how damaging our addiction to oil is at some fundamental level.

Our addiction weakens us financially, puts our economy’s health at the whim of foreign actors, helps fund those threatening us, shortens our lives due to health impacts, threatens our future security due to the risks of catastrophic climate change, and leaves us vulnerable to significant disruption due to any single point failure like that we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and resulting massive amount of oil flooding into the sea.

We have to wonder whether the painful reality of lost fisheries and unemployed (for generations) fishermen, massive bird and wildlife kills, destruction of tourism on the Gulf, and other heart breaking damage to come will be enough to get through our collective psyche.

George W Bush was right: We are addicted to oil.

Looking at the images of oil-soaked birds and looking at soaring shrimp prices as Gulf shrimp disappears from the market, how many Americans will say to themselves: I am responsible? How many will say to each other: we are responsible? The simple fact: I am and we are responsible.

The critical step in dealing with addiction is to face up to it. Will we? Will we look ourselves in the mirror and say: you are to blame!

And, if so, will we act on it?

Very, very simply, if we recognize the reality of our addiction and determine to act on it, as a society we can’t go cold turkey (this isn’t cigarettes and smoking, immediate cessation is not a viable (even if difficult) option). We can, however, determine a path of continued, determined, and maintained efforts to carve away at the addiction to reduce the chances of a future massive undersea volcano of oil, to improve the economy, to improve our health, to improve our security, to improve …

On setting the path toward the moon, President John F Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

It is time to choose the challenge, to seize the opportunity of a goal to unite our nation, improve our nation, to serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Ending our fossil foolish addictions, coal and oil especially, is just that sort of goal.

And, we can set this objective in very simple terms:

The Five Percent Solution

The United States will cut its use of oil five percent every year.

Every year.


Five percent.

And, in 15 years, our demand will be half that of today’s.

That figure might seem like lunacy but, in fact, is a rather conservative assessment of what is possible with already existing technologies and social approaches. Just putting feedback systems in the dashboards of America’s 250 million vehicles (at a cost of about $10-20 billion) would lead to cutting about 1 million barrels a day from US demand — or cutting the cost of oil imports by some $85 million per day or some $30 billion per year. And, by the way, saving lives through safer driving. And, by the way, reducing the health damage due to the burning of gasoline. And …

Electrification of rail … enabling telecommuting … energy efficiency in oil-heated homes … inflating America’s tires …

The tools exist, today, to massively cut oil demand such that, once we start, we would likely exceed that five percent per annum target with a quite possible halving of total oil demand before the end of the decade.

Recognizing the addiction and our responsibility

The first step is that recognition. BP is not solely “at fault”, fundamentally, for the dead birds on the Gulf Coast (despite the serious questions about their drilling practices). We cannot point the finger solely at BP executives for closed fisheries. BP doesn’t bear total blame for empty hotel rooms. We are responsible, through our addiction, to the drive for exploiting oil in the most delicate of environmental areas with technologies pushing the bounds of our capabilities.

Recognizing our responsibility should lead to the recognition to the need for solutions.

And, in this case, the solution is clear:

The Five Percent Solution.

Will the untold devastation on the Gulf Coast provide the slap in the face for us (for the U.S.) to see clearly the solution staring us in the face?

NOTE: We need to forget about calling this an ‘oil spill’. A “spill” as if we’ve dribbled some water from our cup of water rather than a man-caused undersea volcano of oil.

Updated: As Oregonj summarizes

A 3 Leg Stool to 5% per year. (

We know how to do this:

1. More efficient vehicles

2. Better transit and smart growth

3. Low carbon fuels

Related to this, see: Holistic thinking about energy and the future

Update 2: Had not seen this before writing this piece, but Simon Barnes wrote This oil spill shows our addiction is madness — it is time to act the other day:

These spills concentrate the mind, at least for a while. They tell us that our addiction to oil is madness, that our short-term thinking is madness, that our reckless approach to containment — oil at any price — is madness. Treasure this spill: it is a rare occasion on which we can see this essential truth of the way we run our lives with absolute clarity.

We crave oil as the junkie craves his fix, and like the junkie, we will put up with anything to get it. But even for an addict, there come moments of searing clarity. A sudden revelation that this is actually a stupid way to live life. Well, the spill tells us that this is a stupid way to run our planet.

It threatens the continued existence of brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, roseate spoonbill Platalea ajaja and human being Homo sapiens. Perhaps it’s time we did something about it.

Update / Note 3: Oil is far from our only fossil foolish addiction to a dangerous substance. For an outline of how to get off coal in 20 years, see: How America Can Break Its Coal Addiction (Or: no, coal isn’t necessary)

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