All Commentary
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are Americans Addicted to Oil?

Or is it simply cheap and useful?

The American political elite tell us we are addicted to oil. Whether it’s from former President George W. Bush or the present administration, Americans for years have been admonished to break the oil habit and use alternative fuels that meet Washington’s approval.

An online dictionary defines “addiction” as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”

Many commentators see oil usage in our economy in the same manner. Jim Wallis, who runs the leftist religious site Sojourners, writes:

[O]ur oil addiction is making things not work. The list of consequences is long — from critical climate changes, to the loss of jobs, to supplying money for terrorists, to sacrificing the lives of our young people in wars over oil, to watching an oil spill that nobody seems to know how to stop pour hundreds of thousands of gallons each day into the Gulf of Mexico.

At a deep level, what’s not working in the U.S. is our lifestyle — particularly the consumerist energy habits we showcase to the rest of the world. Moving toward a “clean energy economy” will require more than just a re-wiring of the energy grid; it will also take a re-wiring of ourselves — a conversion, really, of our habits of the heart. We must adjust our expectations, demands, and values.

Are we addicted to oil, or is oil a vital resource that helps advance civilization? I believe it is the latter. Furthermore, is “addiction” an appropriate way to describe the use of petroleum-based products?

It is one thing to engage in such rhetoric, but another to examine Wallis’s message: It is immoral to use petroleum-based fuels and other products. Furthermore, his “solution” of expanded State power to force us to use alternative energy forms provides a sort of “salvation” for all of us.

Much of the harm Wallis claims results from using oil (his publication Sojourners also devotes part of the current issue to the “evils” of coal) is speculative. However, I don’t believe it is a given that oil use is “changing the climate” (and always for the worse, according to Wallis), nor does he explain just how oil use leads to a “loss of jobs.” He just makes the statement, and we are supposed to accept it at face value.

However, we do know that rising standards of living also lead to longer life spans and a higher quality of life. Wallis is forever going on about poverty in the Third World (for which he blames Americans, of course), yet we forget that before entrepreneurs harnessed the power of oil and coal, Americans and Europeans were very poor.

Entrepreneurs found ways to use these resources to create products that consumers willingly purchased. From the advent of kerosene, which allowed ordinary people to have artificial light in their homes, to the development of the internal combustion engine, which helped provide the means of large-scale transportation, oil- and coal-based fuels have changed the lives of individuals.

Unfortunately, the same people who decry poverty elsewhere want the government to make us poorer. Yes, there are some side-effects to extracting and using these fuels, but consumers have made it clear they want to continue using them and are willing to pay for their continued production, for they do not want to be forced into lifestyles they find undesirable.

Markets themselves are neither moral nor immoral. Rather, they reflect our own choices and priorities. One can claim, for example, that we are addicted to food and make the same set of arguments that critics make against oil. Moreover, alternative forms of energy also have their own problems. For example, the “food for fuels” movement drives up the cost of food, which means poor people go hungry.

The critics cannot have it both ways. If they wish to reduce poverty, then oil and coal are an important part of that equation. If they want everyone to be poorer, then they have to admit that poverty has consequences.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.