Volume 1, Number 2 (2008)

Soft Machine: A Note On Oil Addiction

Michael Watts

University of California, Berkeley


We can begin with President George Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech.  America, he said, is “addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world”.  As a former oil man and alcoholic, he should know addiction when he sees it.  Five years earlier, Vic-President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Strategy Report, released in late 2001, deployed another word from the lexicon of intoxication, but could not bring himself to utter the awful A-word himself. The American oil-fix, he lamented, could only be met through “a dependency on foreign powers that do not have America’s interests at heart” (my emphasis).  It all sounded rather like an AA session for oil executives.  If it took a half century or more for the Executive to utter that of which we could not speak,  the incontestable fact is that the academic, business, activist and blogo-spheres opining on everything from energy security to petro-nationalism are now saturated with a language whose most direct affinity is substance abuse.  The National Resources Defense Council’s Primer on Energy begins: “America’s 20 million barrel a day habit costs our economy $300 billion annually” (my emphasis, March 2006 p.2.). New York Times autodidact Thomas Friedmann  – the ceaseless promoter of the utterly banal claim otherwise known as his First Law of Petropolitics (for every increase in the price of the barrel of oil there is an commensurate decrease in economic and political freedoms among the oil producing states) – is incapable of penning an op ed on oil without lamenting the devastating consequences of American addiction. And he is not alone.  Ian Rutledge’s very good book, bears the title Addicted to Oil (Friedmann incidentally has a documentary by the same name) and he is part of what is now a small army of  oil commentators – by my rough estimation at least one hundred books have been published on oil and oil security in the last couple of years – who are, well, addicted to the idea of oil addiction.  In the search-engine world, to Google ‘oil addiction’ produces over 500,000 on-line sources. Perhaps inevitably there is a “Twelve Step’ recovery program care of the Oil Addicts Anonymous International1 beginning with a confession (“Step I: We admitted we were powerless over oil—that our lives had become unmanageable”) and concluding with a proselytizing mission (“Step XII: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to oil addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs”).