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A culture of dependency

Energy systems do not exist in a social vacuum but are subject to culture and imagination. Anyone interested in promoting an energy transition away from oil and fossil fuels more generally needs to take this fact into account. Unfortunately, energy culture has often been overlooked as an explanation of U.S. energy development.

“Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy”, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website. [1] The sentiment expressed in this statement would make sense to most people intuitively, partially because oil’s pivotal role in the United States is reflected in any national energy statistic, and partially because we hear it so often. If you were to search for this particular assertion, you would find it just about anywhere in American energy discourse: in Congressional hearings; in statements by policy makers, generals, and oil market analysts; in academic studies; and in newspaper articles. If you look really thoroughly, you will even encounter it in Hollywood movies made as far back as the 1940s: in the opening scene of the 1949 movie ‘Tulsa’ (about the Oklahoma oil boom in the 1920s), the narrator observes that oil is “the lifeblood of our civilization”, and offers an explanation that was as true back then as it is today: “It's oil that drives the ships, powers the trains, and the planes, and fills the traffic lanes, and serves men in a thousand and one ways.” [2]

The idea that oil constitutes America’s ‘lifeblood’ is as old as the American high-energy, mass consumption, automobile society constructed in the early 20th century around the assumption of cheap and plentiful petroleum supply. At that point, the United States was the single largest oil producing country in the world. Since this time, the United States has been a hydrocarbon society, and the lifeblood metaphor its principal verbal icon. Its existence is a compelling sign that oil is part and parcel of American culture.

If one were to draw up a list of the most prominent factors impeding the evolution of the United States into a post-carbon economy, it would be populated with a fairly long and very diverse set of obstacles: the absence of a simple, all-encompassing clean energy alternative; the continued economic competitiveness of fossil fuels; nationwide infrastructure entrenchment; long lead times for clean energy investments; patterns of consumer behavior that cannot easily be changed; the strong political influence of various interest groups vested in the current energy system; decades of partisan differences over the direction of energy policy; general inertia in the political process; and so on. Culture is often omitted from this list.

Yet, ignoring energy culture is a mistake. Deeply embedded and widely shared ideas about oil and society’s relationship to oil have been very significant factors hampering the development of alternative energy sources in the past. Why? Because such ideas affect the attitudes and behavior of all actors whose decisions matter with regard to energy: companies and their economic production processes, consumers and the purchase decisions they make, and the way in which policy makers define problems and formulate policies to solve them.

There are many examples of how shared ideas, values, and habits enter into the national energy equation in this way. As David Nye has pointed out, for instance, America’s historical abundance of competing energy sources has given rise to a specific American culture of consumption. This culture comprised an approach to energy questions that focused on satisfying unrestrained demand. In Europe, on the other hand, where energy has always been more expensive and often scarce, people have developed a tendency to deal with energy issues in terms of making the most of a short supply. [3]
The oil-as-lifeblood metaphor is another good example of an idea within U.S. energy culture that has made alternative, non-fossil energy paths more difficult. Just consider the ideas reflected by the metaphor: it portrays the nation as a person (let’s call him Uncle Sam) with a healthy body, and places oil in relation to this body. Imagining oil as America’s lifeblood suggests that oil is internal to the body politic as a constitutive and thus natural element of this body. Another implication is that oil is essential to the nation’s health and its very existence. While this is another way of saying that America is dependent on oil, it does not amount to a claim that reliance on oil is problematic or unnatural in itself. If oil is America's lifeblood, this is just a simple, inevitable, plain fact of life. Hydrocarbon Uncle Sam relies on oil like the human body relies on oxygen; it seems it cannot be any other way.

It is hardly surprising to observe that a society imagining oil as its lifeblood did consider its oil consumption very problematic through most of the 20th century. Even in the early 1970s, when growth in U.S. oil production started to decline and the energy crisis was on everyone’s mind, consumption soared and the country’s utter oil dependence continued to be seen in most quarters as something essentially unproblematic. Within the standard definition of the energy crisis, oil demand and the American consumer hardly appeared as the cause of the problem. Instead, people chose to believe in Big Oil and government conspiracies. [4]

People also considered the ensuing Arab oil embargo against the United States and the gas lines within the logic of this culture of dependency. After the OPEC supply disruption, the Nixon administration began to equate all of America’s energy woes with the insecure supply of foreign oil. The President defined the lesson of the energy crisis clearly in early 1974: “We learned, at a stage short of the truly critical, that we had allowed ourselves to become overly dependent upon foreign supplies of a vital good.” [5] The alternative of approaching the growing gap between domestic production and demand as a problem of excess oil consumption was not seriously considered by most policy makers and large parts of the American public.

This definition of the problem, and the policy goals formulated on its basis, are still largely intact today. One sign for this is the continued popularity of the idea of ‘energy independence’ (defined as eliminating or significantly reducing reliance on foreign oil). For decades, this idea has dominated official energy discourse, despite the fact that almost all observers agree that achieving such independence is utterly unrealistic and perhaps not even desirable. The curious staying power of the energy independence mantra just serves to further underline the power of culturally defined ideas in energy policy.

Partially because it contradicted the dominant energy culture, as reflected in the lifeblood metaphor, an alternative energy path of promoting an energy transition toward renewable and cleaner energy sources has thus long been confined to some academic circles and the emerging environmental movement. The fact that, for a brief moment, the Jimmy Carter White House started talking about energy in similar terms did not signal a shift in energy culture in the late 1970s. In fact, Carter was often publicly ridiculed for his energy ideas. By the mid-1980s, memories of the energy crisis had faded.
Eventually, however, even the lifeblood metaphor came to be challenged. Ironically, the U.S. President who has done more than any other to promote a change in American energy culture is George W. Bush. In his 2006 State of the Union Address, the President used another body politic metaphor to describe the nation’s relationship to oil when he stated that “America is addicted to oil” and that the country had to “break this addition” by changing the way it used energy. [6]

To be sure, the idea that the United States is a petroleum junkie appeared as early as the 1970s, but it never acquired the currency or the purchase that the lifeblood metaphor had exercised for decades. The addiction trope finally began to appear more frequently in newspaper articles and academic texts when issues such as climate change and peak oil acquired significance in the public mind.

Yet, it is only with George W. Bush and his 2006 State of the Union Speech that the term has become widely recognized in the United States. All of a sudden, it appeared in the titles of TV documentaries, books, and undergraduate term papers. The image of Uncle Sam as a drug addict became a staple in political cartoons. It even has its own Wikipedia page now.

The new ubiquity of the addiction metaphor reflects a profound shift in the way in which America has imagined its relationship to oil. If oil as lifeblood is natural, internal, inevitable and unproblematic, oil as a drug is exactly the opposite. Injected into the body from outside, it is unnatural, artificial, unhealthy, and dangerous. While oil as lifeblood is equated with the vital force of the nation, oil as a drug is the opposite of vital force: it is a poison that consumes an otherwise healthy body.

The potential implications of this cultural shift are profound. It is quite clear that, as a society, we will not wean ourselves off oil because we are fast running out of it (there is plenty of oil). On the one hand, successfully constructing the post-carbon economy will require technological innovations and consumer incentives. But, on the other hand – and on a deeper level –, it will also require America to overcome a culture of oil dependency in which oil has traditionally been equated with the nation’s very lifeblood. From this perspective, the emergence of the addiction metaphor is to be welcomed.

References:
[1] U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.energy.gov/energysources/oil.htm (accessed 07.06.2011).
[2] Tulsa (1949), watch the movie here: http://www.westernmania.com/classicmovies/tulsa.html (accessed 07.06.2011).
[3] Nye, David (1999): ‘Path Insistence: Comparing European and American Attitudes Toward Energy’, Journal of international Affairs 53(1), page 130.
[4] See the polling data in: Bolsen, Toby/ Lomax Cook, Fay (2008): ‘The Polls - Trends: Public Opinion On Energy Policy, 1974-2006’, Public Opinion Quarterly 72(2), page 370.
[5] Richard M. Nixon, Special Message to the Congress on the Energy Crisis, 23.01.1974. Emphasis added.
[6] George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 31.01.2006.

Editorial Notes: About the author: I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. Click here for a short summary of my work: http://www.polis.cam.ac.uk/contacts/students/herbstreuth.html

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