An addiction to oil or a way of life?

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

TEXT OF STORY

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.

Second?

Richert: I really have to do something.

Third?

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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