An addiction to oil or a way of life?

A motorist pumps gasoline into his car at a Shell in San Rafael, Calif.


Kai Ryssdal: Even though it's not technically leaking anymore, today is day 100 of the oil spill down in the Gulf of Mexico. Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly who's to blame. BP, of course, and probably some of its partners on the Deepwater Horizon. But you could make the case that the next culprit in line is me and you and everybody we know. We love our oil and hate it, too. But what's the next step?

Marketplace's Krissy Clark reports.

Krissy Clark: For Mary Richert, the squirming started on a Saturday, a few days after the BP well blew out. She was doing errands with her husband near their home in suburban Maryland.

Mary Richert: And we had the news on...

Radio announcer: ...The ruptured undersea well that's spewing millions of gallons of oil.

And the reports about the spill were getting worse. And worse. And worse. As Richert listened, she had three distinct thoughts. First:

Richert: This is insane, this is so infuriating.


Richert: I really have to do something.


Richert: I quit. I just want to stop using oil completely. I just don't want to ever see it or think about it again.

But then she had one more thought.

Richert: Oh wait. I'm in a car.

And there's the American dilemma in a nutshell. Just when you try to quit oil, you realize it's driving you home. At this point, Richert figured, ok, maybe I can't quit oil cold turkey since it involves jumping out of a moving car. So, plan B was slightly more modest. Everyday, she'd change some personal habit that involved petroleum. She stopped using plastic utensils, started buying more local produce. But then, she got to the one about avoiding plastic bags at the grocery store.

Richert: But what I found at the grocery store was that everything has to be packaged usually in plastic. Why? You know, I'm trying to do a good thing, and your packaging is thwarting me.

And the thwarting kept happening. It was like whack-a-mole. When Richert tried to cut back her oil use in one place, she'd find another place she was using it that she'd never even noticed.

Richert: If it's not made out of wood, paper or metal, chances are someone's found a way to put oil in it. Shampoos and conditioners, tons and tons of make-up.

Charlie Drevna: Glasses, contacts lenses...

Charlie Drevna is happy to round out that list.

Drevna:...Toothpaste, the thing that holds toothpaste...

He's the president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, a lobbying group in D.C.

Drevna: ...Pesticides, insecticides...

He argues that our standard of living has grown in direct proportion to the amount of oil we use.

Drevna: Computers, helmets and bullet proof vests, aspirin. I could go on and on with that list. It would give your listeners a headache, but then they could take an aspirin to cure it.

Speaking of headaches... that's what Mary Richert's quest to quit oil was turning in to. In some ways, her life has become a series of failures.

Richert: Every morning, when I get into my car and go to work is a relapse for me. But what am I supposed to do? No public transportation goes there. I can't just quit.

Clark: Is that guilt I hear in your voice?

Richert: Yeah. I did feel like an addict.

Harvey Molotch: I don't think we're addicted to oil. We're just addicted to going home, and we're addicted to going to work.

Harvey Molotch is an environmental sociologist at New York University. He says Mary Richert shouldn't feel so bad.

Molotch: If you give up the oil, you're also giving up your way of life.

Vintage government-sponsored film 1: This is the American Dream, an automotive age.

Vintage government-sponsored film 2:In this new world of industrial chemistry, the horizon is unlimited.

A way of life, Molotch argues that has nothing to do with personal decisions and everything to do with national priorities and federal programs, as old as these government-sponsored film strips sound. Back when the petrochemical age was just beginning, fueled in part by rubber shortages during World War II.

Vintage government-sponsored film 3:Soldiers must be fed, clothed, housed and equipped. But how? The research chemists in private and government laboratories re-doubled a study of our most promising man-made replacement: Plastics.

And of course, around that time, petroleum was finding another use too.

Vintage government-sponsored film 4: Traveling on time-saving super highways. We have become the nation on wheels.

And the next thing we knew, suburbs, saran wrap, and 60-mile commutes were just a normal part of life for many Americans.

Molotch: And so that's the pickle that we're in.

That's Harvey Molotch again, the NYU professor.

Molotch: Through things like the highway programs, through priorities of expenditure, of subsidy systems. The problem was not really caused by any one person; the solution isn't going to come from any one person. You need something that is sort of bigger than we all are.

For Molotch, that's where the voting booth comes in. He says as long as gas is cheap and it's hard to catch a bus in the suburbs, our country will never cut back on oil. So unless we vote for policies to change those things, it's not the petrochemical industry, but us who are the enablers. Still, Mary Richert says she's going to keep at her oil diet. Even if it's not going that well.

Richert: I'm gonna give my self like an "A" for effort but maybe a "C+" on execution. I still have a long way to go.

At least for now, it's still going to be a car that gets her there.

I'm Krissy Clark, for Marketplace.

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It's not that we are addicted to oil. It's that we are fond of convenience. If passenger rail was more convenient than cars, you'd be discussing our addiction to pig iron.

Our society has bought into the myth that convenience is the highest good we can aspire to, regardless of the cost. In the case of products made from oil, this is possible because the full cost of this convenience (air pollution, landfill space, etc.) isn't reflected in the price we pay up front at the store. If it were, more people might reconsider whether oil is really that good a bargain.

By far the most important effort in reducing petro consumption is energy-related: more efficient transportation (not the same thing as "mass transit"), and better insulation in homes and buildings. Nothing else is as easy or as effective.

BTW, petroleum will always be needed. It's usefulness as a lubricant or ingredient in other products in without parallel.

Your article about what we can do to prevent future oil spills, by altering our lifestyles, was terrific but Ms. Richert never mentioned one of the most important things we can do.

The DOE says about 2/3 of oil consumption in the US is for Transportation. If we all drove 40 mpg cars would deep water drilling be necessary? The 2010 Prius gets 50 mpg. Both Ford and Chevy are introducing 40 mpg cars next model year. What's stopping us?

I was happy, when I began listening to this story, that someone was actually talking about the simple things we the people can do in our daily lives to help change things. However, once the NYU professor came in talking about how we need the government to resolve these problems, I started to get a little angry. Sure voting is important, yadda yadda. But more important are the choices we make about how we spend our time and money. It is much more empowering to tell someone there are concrete things they can do every day to help solve our oil dependence, rather than to suggest they need to vote for other people to fix things for them. If more Americans changed their "lifestyles" so that they were a little bit more mindful about their consumption I think we'd all be much better off. We can't just sit around complaining about government policies, hoping someone will pass a decent law sometime in the future, while we chug bottled water and drive massive cars. A potentially inspiring story that took a lame turn.

The previous commenter touched on my thought - the distinction between petroleum as a fuel (burn it and it's gone back to CO2) and petrochemicals.
I had a hard time finding data (something for your fact-checkers to look into), but it appears that less than 5% of our oil habit goes into plastics.

Seems to me that moving to alternative energy sources is FAR more urgent than worrying about converting oil into plastics.

If we do nothing else, the free market will begin doing things to get us using less oil. All the easy to get oil is getting used up and it is getting harder to produce new oil. Like having to drill in more remote places, deeper waters, forcing it out of tar sands, ect. In the mean time, things like Mary is doing will spread to more of us. And maybe we should remove the new commodity trading rules that prevent price shocks on oil like when it went to $147 a barrel. Just let Wall street greed do the work of helping us to use less of it. Recently the container that my salad greens came in had a sticker bragging about how the container was made from corn.

Oh no! Not our way of life! How can we possibly change! Oil! More Oil! Drill! I want my 60 mile commute, nights spend watching tv and corn-based food!

I listened to this story with interest, hoping to hear reporting about the alternative we have to an oil-based society. However, the story just pointed out the problem and left it there. I'd like to point out a recent study by the World Economic Forum that found that we have the tools and resources necessary to change our way of life today from an oil-based society to a bio-based society with sugar as the new oil. The concept is simple, yet powerful. We can make all the products, energy and fuel we have today from biomass that is refined and fermented down into sugars that can then be used to make chemicals, products, biofuel and energy. The new biorefining industry will create 800,000 new green jobs, billions in new domestic revenue, and help reduce CO2 emissions. To top it off, the US would no longer be in a political position of weakness due to our dependence on oil, we would move to a position of power, as one of the largest stockpiles of biomass (plants, cellulose, etc.) in the world is in our own backyard. Check out the highlights here: http://www.novozymes.com/en/MainStructure/PressAndPublications/PressRele...

or the full report here: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_FutureIndustrialBiorefineries_Report_20...

One of the things made most obvious by this commentary on oil is how few people understand what raw materials are used in their everyday products and where they come from. Many of the products you mentioned are in fact NOT made from oil but are made from natural gas. A small distinction perhaps, but a huge one in terms of where natural gas is produced, versus where oil imports often come from and the much different risks associated with oil production and transportation. Few people stop to consider that if you don't grow a product, you have to take it from the earth either by drilling or mining. As much as we hate the results, our use of materials for everything we do must be supported by mining and drilling. Even building solar panels and wind farms requires the products of mining and drilling. We simply cannot get away from it without giving up all material goods (including food).


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