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Thursday, April 10, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

OIL DEPENDENCE

Addiction rages blindly on


Too bad the Iraq war is not just about oil. It would be much easier to fathom if it were.

Similarly, dealing with the world's oil addiction would be far easier if it were a simple, zero-sum game, rather than a combination of grave dependencies and threats to human and environmental security on a global scale.

Since preparations to invade Iraq began, the Bush administration has been unable to allay suspicions that this war is all about oil. One after another, the rationales given have crumbled, as the United States has failed to document links between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, and United Nations weapons inspectors have come up empty-handed, leaving world opinion justifiably suspicious.

Bush supporters, seeking to counter skepticism, have assured the world that going to war for oil simply makes no sense. Why take oil by force when it is so much cheaper and easier to buy it? But for observers from Tokyo to Tehran, Bush has proven himself a man of principle at any cost. Clearly he would rather go to war than do business with a man who trumped his daddy. If Texans have a saying for this, it's probably something along the lines of, "Better to kick butt and die, than to eat humble pie."

Bush's efforts to corral public opinion with talk of democracy have only further inflamed suspicions. Vowing to free the Iraqi people and bring democracy to the Middle East, Bush has tried to harness the bold, big-hearted and altruistic American rhetoric of the 20th century. More than two years of U.S. unilateralism on the international stage have taken their toll, however, and to the ears of the world the Bush rhetoric smacks of thinly disguised hegemony.

On the most primitive level, Bush has never tried to hide his personal desire to depose Saddam Hussein, and finding a reason to do so has appeared a mere ancillary necessity. As for the oil, Bush will likely view it as the "just" spoils of a "just" invasion, a chance to set the corporate ledger "straight" for big oil: Iraq's national oil interests were, until 1972, privately owned by Mobil, Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and the French company CFP.

Beyond present concerns over the Iraq war, the larger truth about U.S. oil policy is equally, if not more, disturbing. One commentator asserts that the Bush administration is intent on ensuring our global economy remains addicted to oil.

Pervasive consumption

Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, wrote in the January/February World Watch magazine: "Only in the most direct sense is the Bush administration's Iraq policy directed against Saddam Hussein. In a broader sense, it aims to reinforce the world economy's reliance on oil -- undermining efforts to develop renewable energy sources, boost energy efficiency and control greenhouse-gas emissions."

If Renner is right -- and Bush's domestic and international energy initiatives indicate that he is -- then the world community will have to depend on "new" Europe and Asia to begin countering the "old world" energy and environmental policies of the United States. This means first and foremost weaning ourselves off our oil addiction.

From a long-term perspective, oil is lethal. The welfare of human society and the global environment face no greater threat than our pervasive consumption of petroleum. With every barrel we guzzle we contribute to the mounting problems of plastic waste, toxic chemicals in our air, water and soil, and advancing global warming with its resulting climate change. Resource wars, too, are on the short list of global threats posed by oil.

None of these dangers should come as a surprise to policymakers. In this month's issue of The Ecologist, writer David Fleming explains that we have known for decades that oil dependence would begin to haunt us early in the 21st century. He cites reports from 1972, 1976 and 1980, all of which agreed that "it would take many years to develop new sources of energy on the necessary scale, so the sooner it started, the better."

Though awareness dawned more than two decades ago, nothing has changed. As Fleming notes, "Nobody blinked. America, having watched its own oil pass its peak in 1971, simply started to buy it in."

To a far greater extent than most of us realize, oil dominates our lives. Not just the oil that fuels our cars, trucks and electricity generation, but also the oil that the petrochemical industry processes into everyday products. Take a look around and see how many objects you can identify that contain no petrochemicals. Sitting over my laptop at my dining table, I spotted just a handful, mostly food, paper and clothing items.

Jeremy Smith, writing in the same issue of The Ecologist, notes how plastics have even taken over our bodies. "Unhappy with our looks, we enhance our breasts, calves and pecs with plastic . . . we weave nylon fibers into our denuded scalps . . . slip in a contact lens . . . we've got plastic dentures so like the real thing no one need ever know," Smith notes.

Looking around, it is easy to imagine that plastics have always been with us, but they are a relatively new phenomena. Just 80 years ago, says Smith, the fledgling petrochemical industry "took advantage of the abundance of hydrocarbons at petrochemical refineries to develop the raw materials for the plastinated luxuries we now 'need.' "

Though it may seem now that we have few other choices, Smith notes that at the same time petrochemicals were taking off, "the only product to have more uses than oil, but with none of the toxic side effects, was banned (thanks mainly to the same people who developed the plastics industry). That product was hemp -- the oil of which can drive cars, create plastics or be made into soap, the fibres of which can be turned into paper or clothes, and the seed of which is one of the most nutritious substances known."

The development of hemp was nipped in the bud, however, when it and its more potent cousin, marijuana, were outlawed, "thanks to the efforts of Dupont and William Randolph Hearst (with their respective vested interests in the plastics and paper industries)," writes Smith.

Today, hemp is being rediscovered as a "green" alternative to paper and petrochemical products. Ironically, while hemp has proven harmless, and marijuana arguably less dangerous than tobacco, the greed of 20th-century corporate patriarchs has ensured that our society is now helplessly addicted to oil and petrochemicals.

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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