10 Reasons to Be Alarmed About Our Catastrophic Oil Addiction

War, terrorism, economic instability -- these are just a few of the reasons to be concerned about our addiction to oil. Here's a list of 10 reasons to be concerned:

1. Terrorism

The threat of terrorism has been crucial in shaping U.S. policy since 9/11. However, unbeknownst to many, the rise to power of radical, anti-American Islamism can be largely financially traced back to the American consumer’s demand for oil to support a cheap energy lifestyle. That the United States has in its possession only 3% of oil reserves in the world while consuming 25% of total world daily oil production should be alarming. That the majority of oil that we import comes from countries ruled by dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations should be further alarming. These OPEC nations include Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Angola, Indonesia, Nigeria, Venezuela and Ecuador. It is clear that many of these nations are not pro-American by any means, and some are notorious harbors and financiers of international terror networks such as Al-Qaeda. 

The importation of oil from the Persian Gulf has been, and will continue to be, a threat to the United States’ national security. Over 60% of the world’s oil is in the Middle East. Oil trade has not brought democracy and mainstream Western ideology to the region but instead quite the opposite – oil-wealthy rulers running dictatorships and promoting radical, anti-Western organizations. The perfect example is Saudi Arabia, the country that exports the most oil in the world, and whose export earnings are 90% from oil sales. According to the US News and World Report:

Starting in the late 1980s--after the dual shocks of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet war in Afghanistan--Saudi Arabia's quasi-official charities became the primary source of funds for the fast-growing jihad movement. In some 20 countries, the money was used to run paramilitary training camps, purchase weapons, and recruit new members. The charities were part of an extraordinary $70 billion Saudi campaign to spread their fundamentalist Wahhabi sect worldwide. The money helped lay the foundation for hundreds of radical mosques, schools, and Islamic centers that have acted as support networks for the jihad movement, officials say.

While to blame Americans at the pump on 9/11 might be rash, there is certainly a peculiar money trail to be followed from anti-Western terrorist groups to oil. 

2. Scarcity

It isn’t a secret that Earth is running out of oil. There was a lot of oil to begin with – about 2 trillion barrels – humans have used about one half, or 1 trillion barrels, since oil production began. The half that has already been used was the better, higher-quality liquid oil while the half that’s left is comprised of the lesser-quality liquid, semi-solid, and solid oils. Furthermore, depletion makes future oil production more expensive and difficult to acquire, to a point where it becomes no longer profitable to extract what’s left. 

The rate at which oil is currently consumed – 27 billion barrels of oil per year – is only possible for another 37 years, assuming the remaining 1 trillion barrels left in the planet could be entirely extracted. Adjustments will be required within our lifetime to adapt to non-oil lifestyles, according to James Howard Kuntsler.  

3. Suburban lifestyle

The suburban spatial structure is quintessentially American. It is what sets the United States apart from Old World, where dense, urban living is still predominant. It is ingrained into the American psyche that to strive for a home in the open-spaced, safe haven of suburbia is part of the American Dream. Federally-subsidized oil helps keep gas prices relatively affordable to allow suburban life to continue. The problem is that this spatial arrangement in the United States is almost entirely dependent on petroleum, signaling a possible crisis or shift in energy usage behaviors in the near future should oil begin to rise in cost beyond what would make it profitable for the average American to commute from suburbia to work.

“By 2025 the energy-inefficient and automobile-dependent suburban system of the American republic must give way to patterns of human activity and living structures that are energy efficient” writes Kenneth T. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. 

This isn’t to say that there will necessary be a max exodus from suburbs back to the cities; however, future suburban lifestyle must operate upon a vastly different, and likely more efficient and renewable, energy budget.  

4. Food systems

If you ask a suburban child where their food comes from they might likely tell you the name of their local grocery store. To many suburban families, where their food was grown and how it got to the grocery store is less important than what’s for dinner. The same is true for families living in big cities. Due to the flow of a fleet of millions of semi-trucks operating daily on a robust interstate highway system coupled with shipments into American ports from all over the world, the food available in local grocery stores is plentiful and diverse. For this we thank oil. Without it, none of this could be possible.

To help better understand how dependent the United States food system is on petroleum, it might be useful to look at a country that was forced to do with out it: Cuba. The adaptations the people of Cuba made with regard to food and agriculture provide insight. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was virtually cut off from petroleum imports because of the U.S. embargo on the country. After a few hard years, the people were able to get back on their feet and provide food to their families by starting small, organic farms where labor was largely physical and not mechanically, thus not requiring oil. Unlike in the United States, where giant factory farms harvest vast fields with heavy machinery at high energy costs, in Cuba livestock helps to plow the fields. In the city, an urban agricultural revolution occurred; and from it a vast network of locals growing and providing for their neighbors became an adaptation of the economy. In the countryside, plots of land are leased to small farmers and their farm is usually powered by solar panels, a more cost and energy efficient electricity source.

The lesson to be learned from Cuba’s particular situation is that alternatives for food and agriculture are possible in America should it begin to become unprofitable to import food from all over the world using cheap petroleum. There is already an organic farming movement gaining momentum as well as an increasing market for organic food with the United States.  

5. Transportation

No one likes traffic. It’s a waste of time, and more importantly, it’s a waste of money. In the United States, each year there are more than 3.6 billion hours of vehicle delay due to traffic, burning an extra 5.7 billion gallons of petroleum, and wasting $67.5 billion, about 0.7% of the United States’ GDP, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. This translates to about $1000 dollars lost per year due to traffic for a large-city, urban dweller. 

The cities and road infrastructure built in America simply did not account for the amount of population growth that has occurred and left us with gridlocked city streets. In fact, before the automobile became the desired mode of transportation in the United States, most people took the train. In 1922, nine out of ten American did not own a car. Los Angeles once served 1,000 trains daily to commute its inhabitants throughout the city. How did we go from a robust and efficient mass-transit transportation system in America to the congestion-heavy cities and suburban sprawl of today? To make a long story short, there was an emergence of oil and automobile companies such as General Motors in the 1920s that sought to take over the transportation market. Within a decade a company called National City Lines bought up nearly the entire clean, electric mass-transit rail system to replace it with diesel buses and automobiles. The automobile became popular and part of the American dream along with suburbia, and oil and automobile companies have experienced a boom in profits since then.

What does it mean for the future of transportation should oil become scarce quicker than we anticipate? The movie Who Killed The Electric Car depicts that automobile manufacturers have the technology, means, and market to produce clean, electric vehicles. Hybrid vehicles are commonplace on streets today. It is easy to see there is market momentum already heading in the direction of electric cars as one part of the solution to peak oil. However, incorporating electric vehicles into our fleet of automobiles will not change traffic problems at all. Especially within the dense metropolitan areas of America, electric mass-transit must again become the standard for commuting.  

6. Global Economy

It isn’t surprising that the world economy is fueled by oil. Transnational corporations require this energy source to stretch supply lines across the world and maximize profit. As oil continues to increase in price, it is possible that some of that profit might be in jeopardy. More importantly, soaring oil prices might lead to a serious inflation hike. When the cost of oil determines the final value of products in the world economy, it means increasing oil prices will cause cost-push inflation more and more in the future, making it more difficult for governments to keep their inflation rates within standard targets of 2%. During the 1970s oil crisis, for example, when oil prices were three times above average, Americans experienced stagflation (inflation and economic stagnation) where unemployment was on the rise while economic growth was falling. 

7. The Deficit

India and China are importing more oil than ever as their industrial economies begin to skyrocket. A switch to renewable technologies in America will be a competitive and smart economic move into order to cut the deficit to other countries such as China. The concept behind this is simple: oil prices determine the price of imports into the United States. When oil prices are higher, the value of imports is more expensive. Countries that continue to import oil heavily from other countries will experience an increase of their balance of payments deficit over time. Moving towards renewable energy and beginning to switch off of oil as an energy source in America is in the interest of maintaining economic dominance amongst the world. 

8. Pollution/Public Health

One of the most overt effects of oil use since the industrial revolution has been pollution and the damage it does to the health of citizens. Although there have certainly been improvements attempting to limit the amount of pollution from industrial by-product, clean air is still an unfulfilled goal within the United States. The underlying problem is that companies cannot adopt clean technologies that make it difficult to compete. Although certain states like California have more stringent clean air regulations, the federal government regulates trains that operate interstate and ships that import from the world. In 2003, an improvement to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, one of the most viable ways of moving towards cleaner air, was defeated in Congress. Eighteen Democrats from auto-manufacturing states voted against the CAFE changes, while the Democratic party touts a more progressive approach to clean air and environmental issues. It is easy to see that little is being done to keep our air clean by federal regulators due to the grasp of corporate power within Washington, D.C. 

9. Climate Change

This one’s a no-brainer. There is an abundance of scientific research out there explaining how entirely screwed the world is on an environmental, social, and economical level if we don’t curb the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. The problem with global warming in particular is that it truly requires all countries in the world to get together and agree upon regulatory policy that will inevitable limit growth in the short term. Considering the amount of power current, oil-based companies hold upon most developed and developing nations, it is hard to see such an agreement ever occurring. Perhaps an example can be set by the United States and other countries adopting renewable, clean technologies to a point that ideally one day new technologies can surpass the profitability of old, oil technologies. Thus a shift away from greenhouse gas emission might follow natural market mechanics.  

10 . War 

Whether or not we like to believe it, the wars we start today are not about WMDs. They aren’t about terrorism either. They are purely about the security of the economy. The United States has bases strategically positioned throughout the entire world to ensure that the supply lines of cheap energy remain intact and secure. Since the end of the Cold War, all wars are not battles of ideology but battles for resources. Unless the United States plans on remaining the world police forever, sending young Americans to secure resources in the pretext of “freedom”, there must be movements toward developing alternative energy sources within America in the interest of self-sustainability and national security. 


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