Are We addicted to oil?

March 7, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Anthropocene: Why You Should Get Used to the Age of Man (and Woman) | Ecocentric |

Bryan Walsh writes a great blog for Time Magazine, and while I may not always agree with his opinion, I enjoy being challenged by his ideas. Today’s link references his recent contribution to a Time cover story “Ten Ideas That Are Changing Your Life”. I have not read the magazine yet, but hopefully I can still find it on the newsstand.

Mr Walsh writes about man’s impact on the earth, and how some scientists are arguing we have moved into a new geologic age called the “Anthropocene”. The idea is interesting, but it brings me to something I have considered for a few days.

In all the talk about climate change, and oil sands, and pipelines, the phrase “addicted to oil” gets used a lot. I have used it myself, and the statement seems valid. Here is one definition of addiction from the website

Addiction is a brain disease that is more likely to affect individuals exposed to toxic stress during vulnerable periods of their youth. Periods of greatest vulnerability include our earliest years and adolescence. When the brain’s reward system does not function properly, people are at increased risk of moving from use to abuse of substances and behaviours.

I ask you to consider a provocative question because it goes against the current major argument, and because sometimes it is good to reflect on things that have become part of the common vernacular: are we addicted to oil?  Much of the debate around our use of oil fails including that oil is not just an energy carrier. We use oil as a fuel source. It gets converted to different liquid sources used in the transportation system. We also get petrochemicals from oil.

As a fuel source, oil dominates as a transportation fuel for a number of reasons, pointed out quite ably by Peter Tertzakian in his book “The End of Energy Obesity“. In it Mr Tertzakian identifies “nine energy attributes” that a good energy system needs. These attributes are: power density, energy density, deliverability, constancy, scalability, versatility, energy security, environmental sensitivity, and storability and transportability.  Oil hits most of these attributes at the top of the scale. We are working to make oil more environmentally sensitive, but it takes a lot of effort and technology to do so. Much of the current oil reserves reside in unfriendly or unstable regions of the world, so oil may not be the best source to ensure global energy security. Regional energy security is another issue.

Certainly oil permeates every element of our lives from transportation, to medicine, technology, science, and food production, and in that sense, we could agree that as a global society we are dependent on what oil provides us. This last statement is the key in that, it is what oil provides us in services and commodities that we depend on.

At this current time, our challenge my not be exactly what we think. The current method attacks oil as the devil’s elixir. There is absolutely no doubt that oil use causes negative impacts to the environment, and that we must quickly as possible move to mitigate those impacts. The commodities and services we get from oil also provides us with the incredible standard of living that we enjoy, and that the developing world desires to enjoy.

But consider this, if we could magically switch the transportation system today to some other resource, say bio-diesel and biofuels, but we did it without changing consumption, what would be the impacts? You would need to replace 88 million barrels of oil with the equivalent in biofuel, every day. We would reduce CO2 from burning gas and other fuels for cars, trucks, and airplanes, but we would significantly increase strains on other resources used to make the biofuels including land and water.

The second part of the oil equation may be trickier. How do we replace petrochemicals that we use in everything from medicines, computers, food, and alternative energy systems? As of yet, we don’t have mass quantities of other elements that can replace these on a global scale, and even if we do find things, what will be the impacts of using them?

We may be able to replace oil, but if we do not change our consumption patterns, it may not matter what we change to because it will come down to availability of resources, especially when we are on target to hit nine billion people on the planet by 2050.

Are we addicted to oil? Oil is a substance. Crack cocaine or heroin are also substances. If you take away heroin, and replace it with methadone without treatment for the underlying issues that led to the addiction in the first place, the addict may just become addicted to the methadone. If we take away oil and replace it with biofuels, without addressing consumption and behaviours, what happens? We have not dealt with the underlying issue – how and why we use the resource. Taking away oil may help deal with one issue, emissions, but it doesn’t solve the bigger challenge, how can we become better stewards of our resources?

It may be that we are not addicted to oil, but to the lifestyle that the services and commodities we get from harnessing oil as an energy source, and from petrochemicals, affords us. This does not mean we have to all suffer and radically change our standard of living, but rather we can step back and examine what is important to us? Why do we use oil in the first place?

Does oil as a substance trigger our reward system, or something else? The answers may be found by asking better questions.

Something to think about.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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