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We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

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Sunday, 18 May 2008

Addicted to oil - by Blanche Cameron

Blanche Cameron is one of the lecturers on my MSc course and is the founder of RESET.
She has graciously granted permission for me to post this lecture here on Sustainable Living. I am honoured to do so. - Robb

“Might as well face it, I’m addicted to oil…”

Blanche Cameron
Graduate School of the Environment
April 2008

"The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation opti
ons exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."
Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management. Robert L. Hirsch, SAIC

“‘America is addicted to oil.’ It was a catchy line in President Bush's State of the Union address in 2006. But in truth, few administrations have done more to feed America's oil addiction than this one”. David Sandalow, Washington Post, Feb 3rd, 2006

Fig. 1: President G. W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, 2006
(Associated Press)

What is our relationship to oil? “What did Bush mean when calling for the United States to "break this addiction"? Why was a Texas oil man urging Americans to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy"? (Sandalow, 2006)

The phrase "addicted to oil" is not new. But its powerful emotional resonance and strong association with alcohol, tobacco and drug use imply a judgment about the dangers of oil use that has been very unpopular. Politicians have been wary of mentioning that our current society without oil – as it stands – would collapse. Indeed, until very recently, the whole concept of Peak Oil was nowhere near their (public) agenda.

However, we are seeing a move towards wider public acceptance of these issues and greater understanding of the need to transition to other forms of energy generation and use.

The question is not so much whether our society is addicted to (dependent on) oil, but whether understanding our relationship to oil as ‘an addiction’ can inform our approach to engaging communities – individuals, politicians and local leaders - in how to transition to a low carbon society?

This paper relies particularly on work from Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model (1982) and Rob Hopkins’ research for his masters thesis in Energy Descent. It will look at our relationship to oil as it is today – a healthy and creative use of resources for vital economic and social development? A means for millions - even billions - of people to break out of the poverty trap? Or an addictive dependency which is slowly poisoning us and threatens ultimately to be the means of our own destruction?

What time is it?

“Earth’s resource systems are on overload”. (Painting the Town Green, p5)

It is time to wake up. In fact the alarm clock has already gone off, but someone keeps putting it under the pillow! In Six Degrees, Mark Lynas eloquently explores the implications of continuing to pollute at current levels. Even if we were to stop emitting CO2 right now, we would still be dealing with the consequences for the next century at least. What are the tipping points? What are ‘safe’ levels of carbon in the atmosphere? 500ppm? 450ppm? Or 350ppm? We are already at 380ppm with no sign of a reduction any time soon.

So what is stopping us taking action? Are we addicted to oil? What prevents our political leaders from turning off the taps? How are we going to kick the biggest baddest habit the world has ever known?

Addiction or Dependency?

There is no universally agreed definition of the term ‘addiction’. Definitions used by organisations like the American Psychological Association, define an addict as:

“individuals with a physiological dependence on one or more illegal drugs” (DiClemente, 2003)

In other words, a purely biochemical addiction. However this has recently been expanded:

“at the other end of the spectrum, the object of addiction can be ‘any potent experience’ and involves compulsive and destructive behaviours of all kinds…addiction does not have to be chemical or physical but can extend to experiences that are strictly psychological” (Booth, 2004).

Booth also argues that society is addicted to the growth economy, as without it “people would lose their livelihoods as opposed to merely forgoing the pleasure of more consumer goods or having to experience the discomfort of unrealised consumption expectations”.

Other writers, such as Berman (1981) state that “addiction, in one form or another, characterises every aspect of industrial society…dependence on alcohol (food, drugs, tobacco…) is not formally different from dependence on prestige, career achievement, world influence, wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs, or the need to exercise control over everything.”

This can happen at an individual or a society level. To a large extent our relationship to the use of fossil fuels is determined by the way our society is structured. There are problems with using the addiction metaphor, for example, the question of whether we have a choice to fossil-fuel our habit or not. If society functions as an addict, then our actions are strongly linked: relying on car use to commute to work, food supply chains to supermarkets for our food, energy to heat and power our homes.

This is what is called lock-in (Jackson, 2005), in that we are unable to change due to institutional factors beyond an individual’s control. The answers here would lie in decisions at local authority, regional and national level: public transport, work closer to home, housing closer to places of work, local food strategies, etc.

Many have linked the concept of addiction to dependence on cheap fossil fuels. In 1981, Rifkin wrote “Addiction! There is simply no other way to accurately describe America’s energy habit!”. Chomat (2004) uses addiction as the central metaphor in his book ‘Oil Addiction’:

“We are oil addicts, human beings who have created an industrial empire that can exist only so long as it can continue to guzzle vast amounts of energy. It is time to face up to the truth and its consequences”.

Similarly, the concept of ‘recovery’ is common: “a prompt weaning from our addiction to black gold” (Cochet, 2004).

Rob Hopkins argues in his masters thesis, “Energy Descent Pathways: evaluating potential responses to Peak Oil” (2006) that:

“rather than an addiction to oil per se, the issue is an addiction to energy services, that is the work that energy - specifically non-renewable energy – makes possible”

“Stuck on you…”

Oil is embedded in every almost aspect of our lives, in our food, in our housing, clothes, utilities, essentials and luxuries, in our jobs and our recreation. We have a relationship with oil, and there are of course many perceived benefits to this relationship.

For those with access to it, it is easy, practical, labour saving, powerful, cheap…
On the other hand, it is a destructive relationship: environmental pollution and degradation of habitat, atmosphere, water sources, food supplies, economies, governance, relationships, underpins all industrial processes and reinforces global social inequity.

Without a universal definition of addiction, perhaps dependency is a better description. The World Health Organisation (WHO) give six criteria that constitute a dependency, which really highlight the comparison with individual dependency and societal dependency on non-renewable energy services. Each of these criteria present questions which would form a fascinating study of our ‘unhealthy relationship’ with renewable energy use.

The WHO states that “three or more of the following manifestations should have occurred together for at least one month or, if persisting for periods of less than 1 month, should have occurred together repeatedly within a 12-month period”:

1. “A strong desire or sense of compulsion to take the substance”.

This could be seen in Western society’s determination to wage military campaigns to sustain access to oil supplies (Klare, 2002) and the degree to which energy issues underpin much of international geopolitics (Heinberg, 2006).

2. “Impaired capacity to control substance-taking behaviour in terms of its onset, termination, or levels of use, as evidenced by: the substance being often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended or by a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to reduce or control substance use”.

Efforts by governments to restrain fossil fuel use have been largely unsuccessful, particularly because of wariness about ‘interfering’ with the market. Mechanisms such as the Oil Depletion Protocol (Heinberg, 2005) and carbon rationing through Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) (Fleming, 2005) are only just gaining political support.

3. “A physiological withdrawal state when substance use is reduced or ceased, as evidenced by the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance, or by use of the same (or closely related) substance with the intention of relieving or avoiding withdrawal symptoms”.

Serious ‘withdrawal symptoms’ were seen with the fuel protests in the UK in 2000; it became clear how vulnerable our ‘just in time’ food supply system is and how we are pretty much only 3 days away from anarchy. Within 3 days of the start of the fuel depot blockades, supermarket shelves were dangerously empty and food rationing was imposed in a number of towns (Chrisafis, 2000). Cuba underwent its own rapid and shocking transformation when its oil supplies from the Soviet Union were cut off in 1989 at the fall of the Soviet bloc.

4. “Evidence of tolerance to the effects of the substance, such that there is a need for significantly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or the desired effect, or a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance”.

This is slightly problematic as consumption of oil per capita in the UK recently feel slightly, due to a manufacturing activity moving to other countries. However, dependency is still dependency, whether smoking 40 cigarettes a day or moving down to 30. We are also still dependent on this ‘outsourcing’ of manufacturing so perhaps this should be included in the overall picture of energy dependency.

5. “Preoccupation with substance use, as manifested by important alternative pleasures or interests being given up or reduced because of substance use; or a great deal of time being spent in activities necessary to obtain, take or recover from the effects of the substance”.

The case has been argued that in order to sustain the lifestyle cheap oil and gas make possible, people in developed nations work longer hours than any previous generation (Durning, 1992). A 2002 survey found that one in six of those surveyed said they were working more than 60 hours per week, as opposed to one in eight two years before (BBC News 2002). The decline of communal social activities and the increased amounts of time spent watching television (up 63% since 1999, BBC News 2004) highlight the effects of the growth economy on our collective “important alternative pleasures or interests”.

6. “Persistent substance use despite clear evidence of harmful consequences, as evidenced by continued use when the individual is actually aware, or may be expected to be aware, of the nature and extent of harm”.

“The drugs don’t work…”

The harmful side effects of fossil fuel use are increasingly clear, documented, even largely accepted, and yet fossil fuel demand and use continues to rise sharply. Climate change is estimated to cause in the region of 160,000 deaths per year and that this could double by 2020. The World Health Organisation estimates that 150,000 deaths in 2000 were directly attributable to climate change (drought, heat exhaustion, flooding, etc). Globally, cars are responsible for 1.2 million deaths per year (Peden et al, 2004). Yet governments continue to invest heavily in practices supporting the expansion of car use and aviation (£30 billion allocated for new roads in the UK 2006-2016, construction of Heathrow Terminal 5 and Runway 3, etc). The Kyoto Protocol has struggled for ratification by those with most influence on the international stage.

You could argue that oil is as essential to life and its processes as food or oxygen. However, the petroleum interval is very short – how on earth did we manage before oil? We certainly need energy, so at what point does a healthy need become an unhealthy dependency? Hopkins reports a conversation with Michael Rust in 2006, who expressed it very well:

“We have survived for thousands of years without oil but if we were to remove it tomorrow without changing the structure of our society, we would experience total breakdown”.

This looks like dependency to me…


The environmental movement has been acting a little the family members who are there to support the addict through kicking the habit. But what messages to do they give? What do they say to help? Does it help? Other lectures in this module cover this in more detail but some of the key problems with the way the environmental movement communicates the issues seem to be:

• Elitism – that environmentalists own the environmental movement, we are the keepers of the flame, saviours of the world etc.
• Obscure terminology – ‘sustainability’, ‘photovoltaics’, ‘transition’ (the hardcore of environmental conversations) are often not meaningful to people outside ‘the movement’, and maintain an elitist atmosphere.
• Judgmentalism – I’m more environmental than you, “it’s your problem, you cause climate change not me, by…” (not recycling, using your car, flying off on holiday, not caring…etc); ‘holier than thou’, when we all rely on and use energy services of one sort or another.
• Too many problems without enough solutions
• Solutions which may seem very unattractive, difficult or meaningless (will recycling my plastic bags really ‘save the planet’?)
• Evangelism: be pure and simple and happy like me, live with less, find spiritual connection - most people are not motivated by this status-poor ascetic approach – ‘giving stuff up’ is not attractive in a consumer society.

Our dependency is caused by all of us - society, the whole ‘family’. Solutions in dependency treatment often rely on the family working together, as the dependency is often a result of the family’s construction, stories, beliefs about itself. If this applies also to our dependency on oil, it means that all aspects of society will need to work together with common aims and common terms of reference, wean itself off oil.

People do change their own individual behaviour when they feel a direct, positive impact on themselves, their families or loved ones. If there is no direct benefit – financially, socially, health, security or otherwise – they are unlikely - or at least much less likely - to be motivated purely by altruism, philanthropy or the greater good. People who are motivated to take this kind of action are a small minority, and even they still need to believe that their actions are meaningful or will have, eventually, some kind of impact.

The mainstream public expect action on climate change at government level, in the form of intervention, investment and incentives, public transport, tax reform, etc. But government policy is based on an increasing supply of information, believing this to be what changes individual behaviour. People just need to be informed of the need. This is the market-led model: supply information and get people to demand companies reduce the environmental impact of their products/manufacturing processes/transport etc. But most people feel powerless to change these things.

People are concerned about climate change and feel the need for action, but:

“Climate Change is within people’s sphere of concern but not within their sphere of influence” and: “People feel out of control of decisions affecting their lives”
(Painting the Town Green, 2006)

Fossils fuels? Come off it…!

Whatever means used to get off a ‘drug’, the ‘addict’ is more likely to stay off in a supportive environment which helps move them away from negative behaviour patterns and environments (‘bad’ friends!). This environment might also include education and opportunity – alternative patterns of behaviour which are more rewarding and produce real benefits for the addict; in other words, creating a way of living which is better and more attractive than the existing one.

In terms of our dependency on fossil fuels, this is what Rob Hopkins calls creating a “parallel public infrastructure”: local systems that replace our dependency on fossil fuels with support through lower energy systems; good public transport, local food production and medical services, local building materials and renewable energy generation, a strong sense of community and mutual reliance - and a local council system that really involves that community.

Making fundamental changes to our basic systems takes time. Many of the final actions need to be taken at a local authority, regional or national level. However, people in these positions – councillors, politicians – can also be motivated or not to take certain actions, particularly with decisions that they fear might be unpopular with the electorate. It is not that change can come from below, from grass roots – in fact, it only comes from below. Rio, Kyoto, the U.S. Mayors’ Agreement - are all the result of a chain of actions and reactions by concerned individuals. Political and corporate change has been brought about by individuals making conscious decisions to make change in our lives and to demand that this is acted on at policy level.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the famous 12-step process helps individuals go through the difficult process of weaning themselves from alcohol dependency:

1. The bottle has me down. My life is a mess. (Awareness of having a problem)
2. There is help. (Awareness of support)
3. I let a higher power take over. (Seeking that help)
4. I need to look at my life. (Assessment)
5. I admit all I did wrong. (Personal responsibility)
6. I want to be free. (Willingness to change, seeking a better way of life)
7. I ask a Higher Power to help me be free (Moral or ethical purpose and support)
8. I ask: Who did I hurt? How can I fix it? (Assessing the damage)
9. I try to fix things if I can. (Repairing the damage – moving to action)
10. I check up on myself. I am honest (Monitoring and assessment? To see if it is really working)
11. I ask a Higher Power for help to live the right way. (Education and training – studying at CAT!)
12. I live by these steps and get better. I try to help other alcoholics. (Putting it into action, living it, helping others, lobbying, being the change we want to see in the world).

The principle at the heart of recovery for AA is Personal Responsibility.

“I am responsible. . .When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”
(The Oath, Alcoholics Anonymous)
So, are we seeing any signs of a society attempting to quit? In the last 18 months we have seen serious indications that all levels of society and community are taking action. Four reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, The Hirsch Report, media coverage that has never been so great, Climate Action Network, national marches on Climate Change, Climate Reduction Action Groups (CRAGs), anti-nuclear protests, lock-ons at Ffos-y-Fan open face coal mine, and the exponential growth of the Transition Movement.

The Transition Movement has also borrowed from the research around addiction, to develop its own processes for change. These steps, which have informed the structure for developing a Transition Town process, are based in part on research from DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model:

Fig. 2: The Stages of Change Model (DiClemente, 2003)

This Stages of Change Model, common in the corporate and drug dependency worlds, understands that people are human, fallible, prone to relapse and go through many stages - denial, head in the sand, awareness, acceptance etc - before they are ready to take action.

The Transition Movement also recognises the need for help through these early stages of pre-contemplation and contemplation, long before action can be generated. The following is the Transition Movement’s own 12-step process:

#1. Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset
#2. Awareness raising

#3. Lay the foundations

#4. Organise a Great Unleashing

#5. Form sub groups

#6. Use Open Space

#7 Develop visible practical manifestations of the project

#8. Facilitate the Great Reskilling

#9 Build a bridge to Local Government

#10 Honour the elders

#11 Let it go where it wants to go…

#12 Create an Energy Descent Plan

For full details of these steps, see the Transition Initiatives Primer in the module book. I have included them here though to illustrate perhaps why the Transition Movement is proving so popular and may experience more success than other models:

• It cannot be ‘owned’ by one small group of individuals, who control the process – it is steered by a temporary group with processes that aim at the maximum involvement of the whole community.
• It understands that you have to start from where people are, not where you would like them to be.
• It accepts that we are not all motivated to action simply by receiving information – it is not enough simply to tell people the problem and what to do about it.
• There is a long process of awareness raising and taking a community along together
• Its strength is in mutual support and development, bringing in all ages and abilities, with their skills and knowledge.
• It understands that our Transition affects every aspect of life.
• It has an inbuilt flexibility to adapt to new information or changes in priorities – essential to prevent becoming a static, stagnant talking shop.
• It is a long term project, designed to produce real, meaningful, permanent, visible change.

Rocky descent or crash landing? Evolution or revolution? Gradual change or cold turkey?

Perhaps the future is brighter than it might appear, with popular community level action, political awareness of the problems we face and summits with climate change and energy security firmly on the agenda.

Indeed, Bush and the west appear to be moving away from oil. What is the best means of descending the energy ladder and getting off oil? With such a very addictive and structural problem, are equivalent ‘methadone substitutes’ the answer in the short-term, just to bridge the current gap in energy generation from renewables? Can we turn to ‘Clean coal’, Biofuels, Hydrogen or Nuclear as a quick fix to solve our dirty and destructive habit?

“Soon after the President's speech, the White House released a fact sheet explaining the elements of its new "Advanced Energy Initiative." This Initiative, according to the White House, will consist of $236 million in proposed increases for six clean energy programs in FY 2007. This is hardly a transformational new program.

Furthermore, three of the programs in the Advanced Energy Initiative relate to electricity generation and are therefore essentially irrelevant to the problem of oil dependence, since only a tiny fraction of our electricity (less than 3%) comes from oil. A fourth program focuses on hydrogen fuels, with a payoff several decades away.

It turns out that only two items in the "Advanced Energy Initiative" will help to break our oil addiction in the next generation—a $59 million proposed increase for a Biorefinery Initiative and $6.7 million proposed increase for research on batteries. These proposals are fine as far as they go, but utterly unequal to the task.”


The world is now realizing the problems that Biofuels – or any mass-produced, monoculture approach - brings, and that all the technologies currently being considered by mainstream politicians create more problems than they solve.

Dependency is a problem which takes work at a deep structural level, with long-term approach and support for the ‘addict’. There may be relapse, but with the right support – whether practical, emotional, psychological, technical – a transformation can occur.

It is a difficult journey with no guarantees. But one thing is clear, if we don’t get off this unhealthy dependency soon, we face the dubious honour of being the last generation who had the opportunity to just say ‘no’.

Fig. 3: Trucks are loaded with sugar cane, which will be used to produce biofuels, in Brazil. (Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)


Berman, M. (1981) The Re-Enchantment of the World. New York, Bantham.

Booth, D. E. (2004) Hooked on Growth: economic addictions and the environment. Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Chrisafis, A (2000) Rationing keeps NHS Afloat. The Guardian. Friday September 15th 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/petrol/story/0,7369,368702.00html

DiClemente, C. C. (2003) Addiction and Change - How addictions develop and addicted people recover. New York, Guildford Press.

Durning, A. T. (1992) How Much is Enough? – the consumer society and the future of the earth. London, Earthscan Publications

Fleming, D. (2005) Energy and the Common Purpose – descending the energy staircase with Tradable Energy Quotas. London, Lean Connection Press.

Heinberg, R. (2005) How to Avoid Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse. Museletter No. 160 – August 2005. http://www.museletter.com/archive/160.html

Hopkins, R. (2006) Energy Descent Pathways: evaluating potential responses to Peak Oil. Transition Culture

Hounsham, S. (2006) Painting The Town Green. Green-Engage.

Jackson, T. (2005) Motivating Sustainable Consumption – a review of evidence on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. Centre for Environment Strategy, University of Surrey.

Klare, M. (2002) Resource Wars – the new landscape of global conflict. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Peden, M., Scurfield, R., Sleet, D., Mohan, D., Hyder, A. A., Jarawan, E., & Mathers, C. (eds) (2004) World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention. World Health Organisation.

Sandalow, D. (2006) Feeding the Oil Addiction. ‘The Washington Post’, February 3rd, 2006

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