Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Did You Say "Addicted To Oil," Mr. President?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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This is what the President said last Tuesday: " . . . we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." To be honest, I don't think I'd be happy to have you examine every word of my speeches. Occasionally I have been known to err with an injudicious choice of phrase. However, a president's State of the Union speech is different, so allow me to scrutinize just one word--Addiction.

If someone is addicted to Swedish vodka, the best treatment programs ensure that he never touches another drop of the stuff. They do not go about seeking less expensive hooch to keep the addict intoxicated.

If America's oil usage is an addiction, from where we import our oil is irrelevant. All that matters is that we must end the addiction. The problem is that windmills won't keep our lights burning, corn ethanol our planes flying, switch grass our factories humming. Oil can do so and will, for decades to come. Oil is not an unhealthy or immoral addiction, it is a legitimate source of energy created for human use. Eliminating its use would throw America back into the dark ages wit h social conditions that not even the most rabidly liberal opponent of the SUV would tolerate for a moment.

A university professor I know recently announced that he welcomed higher gasoline prices since it was just the incentive he needed to reduce his fuel use. He wasn't going to drive less to reduce his gas costs; he wanted higher costs to make him drive less.

None of this was about saving money. My professor friend drinks costly vintages from his own wine cellar and he spends three months each year vacationing in his Tuscany home. When he said he welcomed even higher gasoline prices to make him drive less, he wasn't talking about being frugal but about being moral--doing the right thing not the economical thing. Why is buying a lot of fuel for your SUV sinful but buying expensive wines or second homes is not? The professor would explain that there is no wine shortage but there is a fuel shortage and it is wrong to use more than your fair share.

Should we ration our oil usage or should we perhaps regulate ourselves with high prices? The moral answer is surely yes if we are suffering an energy shortage and no if we are only imagining one. Are we really suffering from a shortage of energy?

This would not be the first time that we have imagined an energy shortage. Until the early 18th century, colonial homes were heated mostly by burning wood. Forests were vanishing and the rapidly growing colonies were running out of fire wood. The experts advised them to ration firewood. Fortunately before doing so they began burning coal imported from England. Later, the first American coal mine was excavated in Virginia in 1745. Writing hi s Journal of a Tour of the Ohio River in 1770, George Washington noted having seen a coal mine producing "an abundance of it."

As with anything new and untried, there were dangers but these were soon overcome and by 1840 America was deriving energy from a million tons of coal a year.

The founder of the Manchester Guardian newspaper had a son in law, William Jevons, who became a famous British economist and professor at University College, London on account of a paper he published in 1865. It was entitled The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines. He predicted that British prosperity would end within fifty years when the nation ran out of coal and recommended an industrial slowdown in order to conserve what coal was left. Today Britain is still mining coal with no end in sight.

America used to be utterly dependant on whale oil for lighting. During the early 19th century, energy pundits began warning that since a female whale produces only one calf every two years or so and they were being harvested at an ever increasing rate, America would soon go dark. Experts recommended turning out all lights no later than ten o'clock in order to conserve what whale oil was left. They were right about running out of whale oil. They were wrong about America going dark. In 1859 a railroad conductor called Edwin Drake drilled a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania and struck oil.

Since the 1970s we have heard much about exhausting the world's petroleum reserves. Just how soon has been debated, but nobody doubts that the amount of oil is ultimately limited, just as whale oil was. Should we therefore advise petroleum conservation as they once did with firewood, whale oil, and coal?

The truth is that although we do need energy, we have no need specifically for firewood, whale oil, coal, or petroleum. Each in its age suited our special human purpose. Animals seek no external sources of energy. They hunt and gather, always expending less bodily energy in the quest than they gain from consuming the quarry. But we are not animals; we are humans, created to liberate ourselves from drudgery and free ourselves for higher moral purpose. As human beings capable of infinite creativity and invention, we need not contemplate energy shortage. ; It was our limitless human ingenuity that carried us from firewood to coal, and from whale oil to petroleum.

In each step we learned how to extract ever more energy from each pound of matter. Now we could have nuclear power, the process that releases almost infinite amounts of energy. Could nuclear power perhaps be for us today what petroleum was to those who foresaw the end of whale oil?

Soon, perhaps, the well-intentioned and affluent professor will no longer seek bogus moral redemption by conserving energy. He will be able to find more authentic moral purpose while purchasing energy just as he purchases wine -- by consulting his budget not his conscience.

No, we are not addicted to oil. We use it to build and maintain a great civilization in which humans are less consumed by the needs of daily survival than in any other society. The serious problem is not that we import oil from unstable countries. The problem is that it is more expensive than we'd like. The solution is to extract more oil from Alaska, help the Canadians develop their 175 billion barrels of proven reserves, or stabilize the places from which we import the oil. But happily you are already trying to do that Mr. President. Otherwise it was a gr eat State of the Union speech.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Rabbi in Seattle, and President of "Toward Tradition." "Toward Tradition" is America's leading bridge-builder between Jewish and Christian communities; spanning the divide between Christians and Jews by sculpting ancient solutions to modern problems.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Read the entire article on the Toward Tradtion website (new window will open). For free and unrestricted use with attribution.

Posted: 04-Feb-06

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