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Is Our Collective Oil Dependence an Addiction? Your Thoughts Please…

addict1Part of the paper I am writing at the moment looks at the metaphor of addiction in relation to oil/energy dependency, which then leads on to what we can learn from innovative approaches to addiction that might prove to be useful tools for weaning communities off oil. As part of this, in one section I have used the World Health Organisation’s ICD-10 Criteria, which define what constitutes a dependence. I would really appreciate any feedback on this. What do you think? Does the comparison hold water? Are some of the criteria stronger than others? Any thoughts or inputs much appreciated. As this is work in progress and this is a draft, please do not reproduce this document without asking me first….. Thanks.


addicts2“It has been shown above that there are many different definitions of addiction, and that no universally agreed definition exists. For the purposes of this paper, it is argued here that the term dependency offers a more accurate and clearly definable description. The World Health Organisation has developed a diagnostic criteria for dependency (WHO 2002), which clearly identifies 6 criteria that constitute a dependency. Using this as our reference, the comparison with individual dependency and societal dependency to non-renewable energy services becomes clear. According to the WHO definition, in order for a behaviour to be defined as dependency, “three or more of the following manifestations should have occurred together for at least 1 month or, if persisting for periods of less than 1 month, should have occurred together repeatedly within a 12-month period:

(1) “a strong desire or sense of compulsion to take the substance”.
Western society’s ‘strong compulsion to take the substance’ can be seen in its deeming it necessary to wage military campaigns to sustain its access to oil supplies (Ruppert 2004, Klare 2002) and the degree to which energy issues now underpin much of international geopolitics (Heinberg 2006). The cost of militarily sustaining this supply, principally from the Middle East, has been put at $10 billion a year for the European countries and $120 billion for the US (Plesch, et. al. 2005). For many people, daily life has become utterly dependent on access to cheap energy, for example for commuting long distances to work or being reliant on supermarkets with their huge supply chains (Norberg-Hodge et.al. 2002). This can also be seen in the high degree of personal financial indebtedness which has created the need for much of this ‘compulsion’, the total indebtedness of the UK totaling £1.12 trillion (Insley 2006).

(2) “impaired capacity to control substance-taking behaviour in terms of its onset, termination, or levels of use, as evidenced by: the substance being often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended or by a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to reduce or control substance use”.
Repeated efforts by successive Governments to restrain fossil fuel consumption have been largely unsuccessful. There is a high degree of caution about ‘interfering’ with the market. Mechanisms such as the Oil Depletion Protocol (an international agreement to regulate the trading of oil as a depleting resource) (Heinberg 2005) and Tradable Energy Quotas (a national carbon-rationing scheme (Fleming 2005, FEASTA 2006) which would both bring fossil fuel consumption under some kind of control, have yet to garner much support.

addicts3(3) “a physiological withdrawal state when substance use is reduced or ceased, as evidenced by the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance, or by use of the same (or closely related) substance with the intention of relieving or avoiding withdrawal symptoms”.
The potential for serious societal withdrawal symptoms from oil came clearly into focus with the 2000 fuel protests in the UK (Chrisafis 2000), where food rationing was imposed in a number of towns; within 3 days of the beginning of the blockages of fuel depots, supermarket shelves were dangerously empty (ibid). It became clear that the ‘just-in-time’ food supply system resulted in a dangerously high degree of vulnerability. This potential can also be seen in the dramatic and rapid transformation undergone by Cuba when its oil supplies were cut off by the former Soviet Union in 1989 (Murphy & Morgan 2004).

(4) “evidence of tolerance to the effects of the substance, such that there is a need for significantly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or the desired effect, or a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance”.
Providing an example of this criteria is potentially problematic, as per capita consumption of oil and gas in the UK has actually fallen slightly in recent years (Poten & Partners 2001), which, it could be argued, negates the point that in order to be considered a dependency, increased consumption is required to maintain the desired effect. However, this need not always be the case. A smoker who has cut down from 40 a day to 30 can still be considered to be dependent on nicotine.

An expert in the addictions field who I consulted told me;

addicted“It is common in my addictions work to see clients who have recently reduced their intake of alcohol or drugs but who are still dependent. The important question is “what would happen if they stopped?”. If withdrawal symptoms would follow, that is one marker of dependence. If they found it difficult to stick to a decision to stop, that is another. And if they went back to using even when they knew it was harmful, that is a third. These three are enough to bring a diagnosis of dependence syndrome” (Johnstone 2006).

I asked for his thoughts on how this relates to oil dependency. He replied, “Western society is so dependent (on oil) that even though it has managed a slight decline in per capita use, it would not be able to tolerate a sudden further un-planned reduction without massive disturbance in function. This is a dangerous situation on two counts. First the high current use leads to toxic effects in terms of climate disturbance, and secondly it means that when we hit the peak oil point, the subsequent declining supply of oil will cause unprecedented disturbance” (Johnstone 2006).

It is also worth pointing out that although countries such as the UK have managed to slightly reduce per capita consumption of fossil fuels, this reduction has been accompanied by a huge decline in manufacturing, and the ‘outsourcing’ of manufacturing makes this slight reduction in consumption meaningless, as it fails to account for what would be required were the UK to have to rebuild a national manufacturing base.

addict4(5) “preoccupation with substance use, as manifested by important alternative pleasures or interests being given up or reduced because of substance use; or a great deal of time being spent in activities necessary to obtain, take, or recover from the effects of the substance”.
It has been argued that in order to sustain the lifestyle that cheap oil and gas makes possible in the West, people in developed nations work longer hours than any previous generation. A 2002 survey found that one in six of those surveyed said they were working more than 60 hours a week compared to one in eight two years ago (BBC News 2002). Also the decline of communal social activities (Putnam 2001), and the increased amounts of time spent watching television, which has risen 63% since 1999 (BBC News 2004) point to the effects of the growth economy on our collective ‘important alternative pleasures or interests’.

(6) “persistent substance use despite clear evidence of harmful consequences, as evidenced by continued use when the individual is actually aware, or may be expected to be aware, of the nature and extent of harm”.
The harmful side effects of fossil fuel consumption are clear to see in media of all kinds, particularly in terms of climate change, a phenomena confirmed by a consensus of international scientists, yet consumption and demand continue to rise sharply (Hillman 2004) . A report by Cullen (2004) compared the economic growth curve from the Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland with other indicators such as oil consumption, suicide rates, depression, medical drug use and so on. She concludes “I believe the greatest public health challenge of our time is to scrap a system which puts the achievement of economic growth so far ahead of human welfare that it thinks it unimportant to keep adequate statistics to show the damage it is doing” (Cullen 2004:390)”.

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