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Addicts run out of money, kick their habit or die… what will the US do?

June 06 2011 | Oil Pollution, Water Quality,

It was Kurt Vonnegut that first summarized the United States' predicament with the phrase addicted to oil in his "A Man Without a Country" memoir but everyone points to President George W. Bush when they think of it.

President Bush used the phrase a year after Kurt in his January, 2006 State of the Union address. I'm guessing a few blogs have been written about the juxtoposition of Vonnegut and Bush using the same phrase and a few more articles written about the different contexts for where it was used, one searching for meaning in his country and the other leading that same nation... with the same phrase.

Adding some context to how President Bush's used the phrase...

"Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here 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 (innovation)."

President Bush wasn't alone in this view, President Obama has said the exact same thing. So have most of us. Our addiction to oil isn't simply a problem our leaders need to deal with, it's OUR problem as well.

Yet half a decade later and we are all... still addicted to oil.

This issue came charging back to me recently when I watched Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal essentially reaffirm his role as supplier to our addiction. In a telling, straightforward and transparent dialog the Prince said..

"We don't want the West to go and find alternatives, because, clearly, the higher the price of oil goes, the more they have incentives to go and find alternatives."

A fun fact... Prince Talal is listed by Forbes as the 26th richest man in the world.

The addiction metaphor, used by Kurt Vonnegut, President Bush, President Obama and now (paraphrased by) Prince Talal, has become an American trusism.

Yet... addiction isn't a pretty metaphor. In fact addiction is a very graphic metaphor. 

Why would any American accept that label? Addiction isn't a characteristic that connotes strength, leadership or innovation. An addict is the inverse of a leader.

Most addicts eventually face three choices: run out of money, kick their habit or die.

Option one for addicts, run out of money.

The United States officially hit the ceiling on our debt limit two weeks ago, on May 16th. Our elected officials are, at this very moment, doing some political jousting to raise the debt limit.

The clean simple truth is that the US spends more than it makes.

This matters because we cannot simply "buy" our way out of an addition to oil. Many drivers of low MPG vehicles have figured this out... you eventually come to the conclusion that the return on investment (spending $75 - 150 at the pump for a weeks worth of fuel) simple isn't worth it.

Option two for addicts, kick the habit.

The US is still a formidable force in innovation in certain areas.

No, we're not innovators in many renewable energies.

We're not leaders because we continue to act as the oil addicts we are. Prince Al-Waleed literally says this. As suppliers to our oil addiction, they will keep prices just low enough for us NOT to fund alternatives. Of course we know that to be the case but it's always jarring to see such stark, brutal truth from an addicts supplier.

The reason this particular option matters to Surfrider is that our mission is "protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches via our powerful activist network." There is a very high cost to our addiction. The cost goes well beyond the direct and indirect financial costs. Our addiction to oil means we will risk more and more and more and get less and less back. Why do you think we're talking about more drilling in places that are harder to get to and much riskier to manage? We see this higher risk, lower return right in front of our eyes.

Less than a year ago we watched our coasts polluteded with 4.9 MILLION spilled barrels of oil.

Today we see the "drill, baby, drill" chorus trying to find it's voice again and yet we all know that mathematically we cannont drill our way out of this problem. The Presidents of this country, from both parties, agree that we cannot drill our way out of this problem. We must innovate our way out of this problem.

Option three for addicts, they die.

Americans are our own best friend. Americans think we're #1 at everything. It's dangerous to operate as naively as we seem to from time to time. America can't fathom the idea of failing... we're too big to fail. Wait, isn't that a lesson we learned with Enron... and WorldCom... and the financial market meltdown? At some point out debt will be less valuable than it is today. That day seems to be upon us (see option #1).

The truth is we don't have three options because we're an addict without money. We're an addict that refuses to die. Yet these two points don't mean we're not addicts... it simply means we have fewer options.

We're an addict. World leaders say so. Let's start acting like one. Let's get the heck off oil. Let's do it for our coasts, let's do it for the future of this country.

Increased offshore drilling is not the answer.

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