The return of SOTU: Oil ‘addiction’
A post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog last week got me thinking: Is "addiction" the right word?
Bush’s SOTU statement that "America is addicted to oil" was treated as the Big News of the speech, as though he’d admitted to some deep dark secret. Even groups hostile to his administration lauded him for it; many of them have used the metaphor themselves.
But it strikes me as an extraordinarily poor way of describing the problem. It’s imprecise in a way that serves Bush’s interests in subtle but important ways.
When Bush talks about "addiction," the subtext is always his own carefully constructed personal narrative: The youthful alcohol problems and the redeeming power of Jesus and the love of a good woman. In Bush’s campaign story, he was spiritually redeemed; he shook off addiction by improving his character. The subtext of America being "addicted" is that the American people are somehow fallen and weak.
But America does not rely on oil by virtue of any moral failing. It is not a weakness. It’s simple prudence: For quite a long time now, oil has been an incredibly cheap, incredibly concentrated source of energy.
It turns out that burning it is screwing up our atmosphere, and it’s going to run out soonish, and it props up politically detestable regimes, so yeah, we need to start phasing it out. Circumstances changed. You can’t say the same about, say, heroin, which was never a smart choice.
The addiction meme also seems to imply that individual Americans need to break their own addiction — that reducing oil use will be a matter of individuals cutting their own consumption. But while it’s certainly true that individuals can reduce their oil use at the margins, real, substantial cuts will arise from public policy and corporate commitments.
What’s stopping that public policy and those corporate commitments? It’s not "America." It’s a finite, identifiable set of financial interests and the politicians that serve them.
There are bad actors here. The vague "addiction" metaphor seems designed to smoosh out responsibility to the point that it ceases to adhere to anything.
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