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Addicted to Oil: Confronting America's Worst Habit

It's hard to forget Robert Duvall's ode to napalm in Apocalypse Now, but most people misquote it: "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning. The smell, that gasoline smell. Smells like victory." We leave out the middle line, which is odd, given our love of gasoline.

Gasoline, like napalm, is a powerful, flammable oil distillate. We inject it into our car engines where it explodes droplet by droplet, propelling us across the surface of the planet. Its smell is intoxicatingly sweet, and when it spills on your hands, it leaves a smooth film on your fingers as it evaporates.

Gasoline is freedom, speed, pleasure and convenience in liquid form. Think of first escaping from your parents' house in a friend's car. Of how little personal effort it takes to drive to the supermarket to get a loaf of bread. Of the beauty of cross-country road trips, impromptu drag races, and backseat groping. Of the joy of screaming out the lyrics of a favorite song when it comes on the car stereo. All these pleasures owe something to gasoline.

It can also be liquid utility. Gasoline was the driving force behind the single largest public works project in history, the American Highway System, as conceived in the 1956 Interstate Highway Act. It speeds produce to market, propels kids to soccer practice, adults to their jobs, and family station wagons to Yosemite.

Not surprisingly, gas has seeped into our language: I'm running on fumes, It was a high octane football game, that's like throwing gasoline on the fire, I'll have a cup of unleaded, or I wanted to finish the project but I ran out of gas.

Gasoline's metaphorical saturation of our culture is understandable given that, after water, it's the most popular liquid in America. According to the Department of Transportation, Americans burn over 125 billion gallons of gasoline annually while driving around on the nation's roadways. That's almost 450 gallons per capita. By comparison, we only drink 7 billion gallons of beer, wine and spirits yearly.

And like alcohol, it's a fluid we try to handle with care, knowing instinctively that any liquid that actually burns can't be all good. One sniff of the stuff as a kid, perhaps while refilling the lawn mower, and you know gas isn't good for you.

Dropping the Nozzle

I quit doing gasoline a year and a half ago. I'm not talking about sniffing gas; like those kids who inhale the fumes of airplane glue. I mean I was a real addict, the kind who likes his gasoline in liquid form and by the tankful--the kind who has indignant conversations about the fluctuations in the street price of gas.

I didn't join a support group or go to a detox program. I'd been thinking about quitting for 6 or 7 years. I even went nine months in Chicago not doing it at all, but a year and a half ago, I consciously gave it up for good. Went cold turkey. Stopped buying it. Stopped using it. Clean and sober. I don't even use ethanol.

Gasoline is our country's largest addiction. Doing gasoline is a filthy, dangerous and expensive habit and worse in some ways than drinking or smoking. In fact, you can transfer warning signs on cigarette packs almost verbatim to gas pumps, like so: "Using gasoline causes lung cancer and emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy."

Consider the following statistics from the Federal Bureau of Transportation about gasoline and cars: Automobile crashes kill 43,000 Americans a year, a death toll almost as high as the total American body count in the Vietnam war. In the year 2000 alone, there were 6 million gasoline-fueled crashes in which more than 3 million Americans were injured. Of that 3 million figure, more than 130,000 were pedestrians and bicyclists.

Moreover, emissions from burning gasoline are the leading cause of smog and global warming. And according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, air pollution in cities puts city dwellers at a higher risk for lung cancer than people who live with smokers and breathe secondhand smoke.

Gasoline addiction is a public health nightmare in other ways, too. Consider drunk driving, which is, in its distilled form, just the mixing of our culture's two most powerful liquids, gasoline and alcohol. On could also argue that gasoline usage leads to automotive dependency and a sedentary lifestyle, which is closely linked to heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States. Through tailpipe emissions, gasoline also plays a part in killer number two--cancer--and killer number four--emphysema. The fifth most common cause of death is accidents.

In drug terms, gasoline is to oil what heroin is to opium. And like opium, most oil comes from shady overseas cartels located in non-democratic countries, including ones designated as "sponsors of terrorism." Billions are spent yearly by the Pentagon to maintain a huge military presence in the Persian Gulf to protect our "national interests."

Having a gasoline habit is personally expensive too, even though gas is cheaper by the gallon than milk or spring water. MSN CarPoint estimates the cost of owning a car in Los Angeles is over $9,000 a year. The Federal Bureau of Labor estimates 18% of household income is spent on transportation, and AAA calculates driving costs to be 40 to 60 cents per mile.

Gasoline is also responsible, at least in part, for all of the following: road rage, speeding tickets, asbestos contamination of groundwater, urban decay, the Valdez oil spill, the Persian Gulf war, car alarms, erosion, Los Angeles, aromatic hydrocarbons, social alienation and parking tickets.

But we don't like to talk about our addiction. We prefer denial. We prefer to say we are stuck in a traffic jam because we don't want to admit we are the traffic jam. We bitch about traffic, parking, smog and the high cost of auto repairs but still keep using more and more. Articles and statistics about gas-guzzlers and the social costs of driving can feel like personal attacks. These are textbook reactions of an addict when confronted with his or her behavior. And if you're one of the people who feels this way, you have a lot of company.

Conservatives like William Safire don't turn their personal responsibility rhetoric loose on citizens who drive 2 miles to the grocery store for a stick of butter, instead of riding a bike there. The White House didn't condemn the recent military coup in Venezuela, because the democratically-elected government there sells gasoline to Cuba and has threatened to nationalize its oil fields. And liberals oppose oil exploration in "sensitive habitats" (as if there were any other kind) but burn gasoline by the tankful in their SUVs on the way to Whole Foods. One prominent Democratic Senator, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, (D-Md.), defended the Senate's recent vote not to raise corporate fuel economy standards and apply them to SUVs, by calling the measure an attack on "soccer moms."

Damming the Flow

Despite all this widespread denial, a growing number of people are getting wise to our culture's gasoline addiction and are learning how to wean themselves off it. In New York City, a huge percentage of the population is gas-free. The "smart growth" movement is gaining in popularity in America, and whole communities are being planned in ways that reduce gasoline addiction. Voters in San Francisco, the birthplace of the original freeway revolt, recently voted to tear down a highway overpass and replace it with a boulevard rich in housing and local businesses.

Years ago, countries in Europe realized the extent of their addiction and created social structures to help people live without gasoline--mass transit, dense mixed-use developments, and networks of bike lanes. American visitors to cities like Venice and Amsterdam and Paris come home marveling at how easy it is to get around while abroad without gasoline. And Brazil's second richest city, Curitoba, has designed a public transit system so fast and effective that 70 percent of its people use it daily, even though, percentage wise, car ownership in Curitoba is higher than any other city in the country.

Joining that growing group of Americans who have sworn off the stuff feels really good, and not just in an intellectualized "I'm saving the world by recycling my yogurt container" sort of way. My life is less stressful. I save money and I have more free time.

Like any recovering addict, I understand the allure of my former drug. In fact, I must admit, I still own a gasoline burner. Rose is a 20 year-old pick-up, a handsome little number with a bench seat, who carried me and my stuff over the Bay Bridge into the fine city of San Francisco. For almost a year after, she ferried back and forth across that same bridge to work. But I'm having a difficult time bringing myself to sell her, to sever all ties with gasoline.

You see, I was such a good user of gasoline. I once burned gasoline for 17 hours straight, going solo from Atlanta to Massachusetts to see a girl I was in love with. One year, I drove cross-country twice. For a while, I even owned a gas-guzzling 1965 V-8 Ford Mustang. In college, I daydreamed of escaping academic life by becoming a long distance trucker.

But that's all the good stuff about gasoline: the visceral rush of a heavy gas pedal on a wide-open road without the more common drag of stop-and-go traffic in rush hour. If ever a phrase needed updating, it's "rush hour." I got my first true taste of that side effect at age 21, commuting to a summer office job in Atlanta. That's when I first experienced the unique frustration of stop-and-go traffic, of being deprived of speed, momentum and velocity. But I kept using gasoline, partly because I didn't what else to do and partly because sometimes, late at night on an almost empty highway, I'd get that old feeling again.

The occasional taste of the original high is critical; it's what keeps addicts going, even when the high is mostly gone. Consider this passage from Sex, Drugs, Gambling, and Chocolate, an addiction workbook, and apply it to your own gasoline habit: "One of the ironies of addiction is tends to take away from you what it gave you at first... It does not take it away entirely, probably would have stopped the addiction. ... But consider whether you are now actually worse off than when you began, in precisely the areas you thought you were being benefited."

Of course, you will never see rush hour in a gas or car commercial, though you may well see it in a painkiller commercial. The collective amount of stress American gasoline addicts feel daily being frustrated in their goal of getting from A to B quickly is astronomical. You get drunk on gasoline's power as a teenager and then later you can't get that high again.

One Trip at a Time

So I quit. Except for two tankfuls I split with 5 others on a ski trip in a rented minivan, I haven't bought a drop in over a year. It's not that hard to do actually. But, like quitting smoking, you have to have a plan and know why you are doing it. So here are a few hints from an ex-addict on how to kick--or at least temper--the habit.

First of all, even after you make the decision to cut back on doing gasoline, you will still want to go places. You will feel that craving to go to your friend's house or to the donut store. While this feeling may pass if you ignore it, you may also safely give in to that urge by walking, taking public transit, or riding a bike. Despite what the television and your friends say, these options are neither un-American nor only for poor people and children.

You should figure out why you want to curb your habit. Make a list of all the expenses you pay to maintain your habit: insurance, registration fees, repairs, parking fees, tickets, and of course, gas. Think about how much less stress you will experience when not using gasoline. Then, think about which of your trips could be done on foot, bike or transit.

Then set some achievable goals, maybe 5 gasoline-free trips a week. This shouldn't be too hard, since 40 percent of all automobile trips are less than 2 miles. Reward yourself after these trips, using the money you save to buy yourself a treat. Each week, try extending the range of how far you can travel without gasoline. Tell your friends what you are planning to do and invite them along. Pride yourself on incorporating exercise into your daily life.

Have gasoline-free family ventures, biking or walking together to the video store. Become active in an organization that advocates for transit alternatives. Don't be intimidated by thinking that you have to be "pure" to join. Many activists are multi-modal travelers, sometimes taking the train and sometimes driving. Investigate whether a car-sharing program exists in your city, and join it or advocate for one to be established.

Realize that some gasoline use is structurally necessary. Some places are only accessible by freeway, are too far away or are located on dangerous roads. Don't feel guilty when you use gas, but also don't make excuses. You can carry a lot of groceries on a bike with side baskets or you can get a bike trailer. That might sound hard, but it isn't, and a lot of people do it.

For gas addicts, living in the suburbs can feel like being an alcoholic who lives in a bar. Suburban America was mostly designed by and for gasoline addicts. Mass transit, walking, and biking have all been squeezed out in the last 80 years. So if you really want to completely quit you might think about moving to a city or at least moving somewhere in the suburbs near a transit line.

Quitting gasoline, even just cutting back, isn't always easy and there will be some drawbacks. You will probably have to wait too long for an all-too-infrequent bus. But the bus or train will come, you will get there, and you can read a book on the way. And while you're en route, you'll be sitting right in the middle of one of the only viable public spaces left to us.

If you ride a bike, like I do now, gas addicts will sometimes drive by you too closely. Drunk on 89-octane fuel, drivers will forget to signal, they'll blow stoplights, and they'll break the speed limit. But you will still be safer than you were as an addict. Moreover, you will be using the most energy-efficient means of transportation ever invented, and it runs on burritos and water, not gasoline.

Freelance writer Ryan Singel teaches ESL, tends his garden, studies Spanish, and pays too much in student loans. He would never refer to decaffeinated coffee as unleaded, nor would he drink it.

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