Recently, James Hansen, noted scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that development of tar sands as proposed in Canada would propel us onto an inexorable course of global warming

Increase in global temperature

that would be disastrous both ecologically and financially. He pointed out that addiction to fossil fuels is a causal factor for this irrational behavior. As taught to Victoria Marina-Tompkins, my shamanic teacher, by well-known cultural anthropologist, Angeles Arrien, addictive behavior is driven by four core addictions: addiction to perfection, to needing to know, to what’s not working, and to intensity.

We often think of oil primarily as a fuel, but oil is also the raw material for a wide variety of consumer products such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. How is this related to addiction to perfection? We want produce that looks perfect, so farmers apply synthetic pesticides

Danger of pesticide

that wreak havoc with the environment and cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. Organically grown produce is often more flavorful and it promotes ecological health, yet it may have small blemishes and thus not satisfy our addiction to perfection. Some argue that organic produce costs more, but the cost at the grocery does not reflect the cost of damage to the environment caused by agrichemicals—soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, polluted water—or the cost of medical treatment for people who are harmed by these chemicals: agricultural workers, families who drink pesticide-contaminated well water, and consumers who eat these “perfect” products.

Oil, as harmful as it is, is a known quantity, satisfying our addiction to the need to know. We know the location of gas stations, how to fill our cars, and how far we can go on a tank of gas. Until we can let go of this addiction, it’s hard to switch to electric cars

Electric car

or cars powered by alternative fuels. How would we charge the batteries? How far could we drive? How would the car perform? Where would we get fuel? Because of our need to know and corresponding fear of the unknown, these questions keep most of us clinging to cars powered by oil. Poisoned by diesel exhaust and the benzene in gasoline—both of which cause cancer—and emitting carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, we ride blithely along in our petroleum powered cars, safe in our need to know.

Often when considering alternative energy sources, we focus on their disadvantages, a manifestation of our addiction to what’s not working. Although a shift to renewable energy for electricity generation, heating, and cooling would reduce emission of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, create locally controlled sources of energy, remove the risk of oil spills,

Bird covered with oil

create high-paying jobs for skilled workers, save consumers money, and save lives that are lost in wars; much of the discussion focuses on the disadvantages of sources of renewable energy: battery requirements for solar and noise from wind turbines. Cost is often cited as a reason for not converting to renewable sources; however, if the environmental and health costs of oil were accounted for and if government subsidies were equalized for oil and renewable sources, then many forms of renewable energy would become cost compatible, if not cheaper than oil. Given the ecological, financial, and human health benefits of renewable energy sources, why can we not muster the political will to implement them? One reason is our addiction to what’s not working.

Many of us are addicted to intensity. We like to drive fast and feel the power of rapid acceleration, although driving this way consumes more fuel and results in more injuries and deaths from traffic accidents.

If we can free ourselves from these core addictions, then we can begin to let go of behavioral addictions, such as our addiction to oil. This will free up our collective energies to create a sustainable future.

About the Author

Sandy Olliges

Sandy Olliges, M.A., teaches academic writing at San Jose State University. She is a former Environmental Manager for the NASA Ames Research Center.

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