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Oil And Ethics: American Consumption and Entitlement Egoism

What they don't want you to know about the coming oil crisis
The above is the best oil-related article that I have read in a long time.
Also, Life After The Oil Crash

That the ubiquity of oil in American life goes unnoticed is astonishing. This article aims to raise awareness of both the role that oil plays in our lives and where we are heading if we fail to address the rise in American oil addiction.

An indisputible fact: non-renewable resources will run out. There is no legitimate or rational means to erase or explain this fact away. Oil is a non-renewable resource. This means that we cannot create oil. Oil results from the decay of dead material under layers of mud, which under millenia of pressure and hence heat, transforms into a sticky, black, carbon-based fluid. In a sense, oil is cooked dead stuff.

To exert the force required to make oil by artificial means (thermal depolymerization, TDP) requires more energy input than we could extract from artificial oil. There has been some progress: a plant in Carthage, Missouri is able to produce between 100 and 400 barrels of low grade crude oil a day. However, the United States uses almost 20 million barrels of oil a day — over 9 million of which are used to run our automobiles.

A recent (January, 2004) article enthusiastically discusses the possibilities of TDP:

At first, it was the oil angle that was TDP's selling point. In case you hadn't noticed, we get a lot of ours from countries that don't like us very much. Then they give our money to people who use it to kill us. So TDP was being touted as a way to reduce our imports. In fact, get this: According to Appel, there are more than 12 billion tons of agricultural waste generated every year in the U.S. (And that's undoubtedly a low number; it's based on 1988 figures.) Were it all to be put through the TDP process it would turn into more than four billion barrels of light crude oil.

The first glaring problem here is the math: 4 billion barrels of light crude oil is somewhere around half of America's annual consumption, based on Department of Energy estimates (20 million barrels per day). Then factor in the process of collecting the waste and shipping it to the plants and whatever energy would be required to convert the waste to low-grade oil: it doesn't add up.

The fact is that someday, non-renewable resources will run out. One might debate or opine about when this will happen, but there is no dispute that it will. If it is within 10 to 20 years, that is not likely enough time to even implement full-blown TDP as cited above. Given this, it is reasonable to wonder, given the narrow range of estimates of when the energy required to drill it will cease to render up a balance of oil, what will we do?

Deliberately, the question is not "where will we get our energy?" This is deliberate because that question excludes the possibility of entering a discussion about alterations in our energy consumption behavior. It is that possibility that I would like to investigate first.

America's energy consumption behavior is appalling. We are the largest per capita energy consumers in the world. And we hardly notice. Importantly, we hardly notice how much we rely on oil and oil-derived products for almost everything we consume. To begin, the roads we drive are made of oil. About 3% of the oil we use ends up as roads. All of the goods that we purchase are shipped via these roads in big trucks that run on the combustion of petroleum.

We drive our cars on those same roads to get to the stores where the products are wrapped in plastic and sit on plastic shelves and get rung up through a plastic price scanner. Plastics are petroleum-derived products as well. The consumer goods that we purchase mostly come from overseas. That is, they arrived on American shores in oil-powered machines. And many of these products are made of various kinds of plastics. Even "wood" furniture is rife with pressed foam mouldings, again a petroleum derived product.

The vegetables we eat are fertilized with and protected from bugs by petroleum products. Artificial fertilizers and pesticides come from oil. Synthetic materials in our clothing are often petroleum derived as well. In a sense, we eat it, we wear it, we sit on it, we drive with it, we store our sandwiches and cola in it. Oil is absolutely everywhere. This is the way in which I would like to introduce "oil tax". Just about everything we purchase has the cost of oil bundled up in the price. This is something that we should notice.

American oil consumption, obviously enough, starts with the automobile. We rely on our cars to get us to interesting places, like the supermarket, the department store, the shopping mall, or to work. The distances between where we live and where we often need to be result from (sub)urban planning. It is difficult (and unnecessary) to say whether urban planning reacted to a market force that drove families away from the goods and services that they need, or whether market forces have been shaped by urban planning policies. Either way, the fact that we tend to be so far away from the things we need and the things we do is the dominant factor in why we consume over 9 million barrels of gasoline every day.

There is the further and obvious problem with the sheer size of American automobiles. That most Americans haul a couple of tons of steel everywhere they go is a strange phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is, most likely, not sustainable. It is not sustainable because the cost of hauling a two ton shell to the supermaket, for example, will inevitably be too high for a normal consumer. Similarly, the cost of dragging the same two ton shell across a six lane freeway to a job in an air-conditioned office is rather overkill.

A common retort to this line of criticism involves "safety" and entitlement. The safety line usually goes something like "I have this vehicle because it is safer in an accident." And the entitlement line usually goes something like "I have earned the money, so I can buy and drive whatever I want." The safety line is partly true: H2 vs. Bug and the H2 wins. But then, the Suburban tends to flip over all by itself, and can't stop on a dime, like the Prius or Focus. It helps to be able to stop.

The entitlement line is largely misguided. This sort of argument relies on a moral position akin to what we might call "ethical egoism". A paraphrase of this position might be something like "The right thing to do is what is right for me." Embedded in the position is a strong sense of entitlement. (One might criticise that I have built a straw-man description of ethical egoism, however I contend that the position I want to attack is akin ethical egoism, and moreover, is not an unfair characterization of the arguments one can read in the popular media on almost a daily basis.)

In both the gas-guzzler case and in the personal safety case, there is no sense of the existence of or respect for a world outside one's own perceptions. With respect to personal safety: "I drive the H2 because in a contest with a Bug, I win." Clearly this ignores the safety of the Bug driver. Moreover, the position completely fails to recognize a world outside of itself. It is, in this sense, solipsistic. Similar in the gas-guzzler case: "I have earned my money and I can do with it as I choose." Again this ignores the impact that one's choices has on anything except oneself.

(We tend to scold children when they behave this way.)

What makes these sorts of positions problematic is complicated. One vector of attack is the criticism of the position's dangerously solipsistic component. Another vector of attack might be to show that the position is self-defeating. We might show that one who pursues pure entitlement in this way will eventually (sooner than later in the case of oil) vandalize the possibility of pursuing one's self-interest.

Lest we go too destructively deep into ethical theory: the main point to be made is that given the simple fact that non-renewable resources will run out, we are wrong to emphasize entitlement and self-interest in discussions of the topic. To do so is to deny the significance of the resource point, for the resource point relies on serious recognition of and consideration of a world beyond the interests of the individual.

Importantly, I do not want to turn talk of our promiscuous use of energy resources into something palatable to the egoistic entitlement position. I could do so by arguing that if we want to continue to pursue our self-interests, we have to shift our energy consumption habits. One could make this argument work, but it does not solve the underlying problems of solipsism and social irresponsibility.

American oil consumption goes deeper than the automobile. Oil is an integral part of our food, insofar as it is an integral part of our fertilizers and pesticides and packaging. The fact that vegetables and fruits no longer have a "season" in our supermarkets is due to our pesticide, fertilizer and seed technologies, combined with the interstate road infrastructure. The horrific thing is that an average American consumer does not notice. An average American consumer has no idea what the local tomato season is. There is a way in which the capacity to notice has evaporated.

In the past, native plants were naturally resistant to local pests. They were bred this way over hundreds of years by a sort of artificial selection. In the 20th century, the possibility of mass-production and movement of fruits and vegetables emerged. The possibility emerged as America built an infrastructure to support fast shipping of consumer goods. With this, the possibilty of, or need to, farm huge tracts of land emerged. On those tracts of land, it became profitable to grow and harvest single huge crops, again because the enormous surpluses could be distributed to consumers. With this came the need for fertilizers and pesticides that would help support such factory farms. It turned out that oil (and natural gas in the case of fertilizers) could be used to help derive the chemicals needed to support the new farming paradigm. And so it has gone.

There is the simple fact that the ability to move fruits and vegetables great distances resulted in the need for and development of today's pesticides and fertilizers. Both the infrastructure and the chemicals are intimately tied to oil. On top of that, much of our food's packaging depends on petroleum-derived products. Plastics, waxy cardboards, styrofoams — these took the place of paper. Frozen took over for fresh. Distant, artificially preserved fruits and vegetables took the place of locally grown products. And again, I consider the observations to be indisputable — most of the things we buy come in plastic or partly plastic containers. Most of the things we buy come from far away, and so depend on shipping which depends on oil consumption.

Changes will inevitably have to come. I argue that those changes will have to be deeper than what can be accomplished by an entitlement-egoism position. The changes will have to touch the ways we live and arrange our lives — that is to say, the changes will have to address a shift in our energy consumption habits. This shift will rely on our gaining a competence to look outside of our personal needs and understand the moral and economic and social interdependence of our communities.

The above is a start because it can be held up as a mantra or a yardstick for evaluating shifts in our perspectives. Gripes about traffic and automobile safety and food prices can be evaluated with an eye to the sort of moral position that leads to our gripes. That is to say, if I complain about the price of tomatoes, am I complaining because I feel that I am entitled to cheaper tomatoes? If so, am I ignoring a bigger picture — am I ignoring a deeper sentiment about living as part of a community? Perhaps so. And if so, then I should wonder at how my habits and lifestyle are etiologically tied to the price of tomatoes.

Personal habits tied to the price of tomatoes? Yes. My rate of consumption, combined with similar rates of consumption of like-minded people, aggregates to a massive rate of consumption. If my rate of consumption is tied to my lifestyle, then I might want to consider how my lifestyle contributes to my community's role in the country that consumes the most energy and stuff in the world.

Considerations like this are not aimed to solve the problem. A utopian vision of all of us doing our share to shake the trends that led us to this point — that is a pipe dream. Rather, beginning to consider such things and beginning to live a deliberately different life is akin to training. It is akin to training because, when big changes have to come, we have to be flexible enough to roll with the changes. This is how we will survive enormous shifts in our lifestyles.

In a recent documentary, "The End of Suburbia", the pundits note that the 2003 blackout that cut electricity to 50 million people caused tremendous chaos, yet did not result in a reflective attitude about our energy-dependent lifestyles. This is an important point, for it indicates a general tendency to resist taking any sort of personal responsibility for energy-dependency, and to fail to see that an alternative form of life is possible. One can investigate one's own reaction by asking simple questions, like "what would I do if the lights went out?" Perhaps try living a day without using electricity in the home. Tough, isn't it?

It's not all gloom and doom though. The point is not that energy supplies will be cut instantly and chaos will ensue. The point is that the cost of various forms of energy will rise as we start to tap out the planet's non-renewable resources. As this happens, consumers will have to start self-imposed cutbacks. Such cutbacks might include turning off the television, or watering the lawn a bit less, or finding work closer to home so to cut fuel costs, or to begin taking mass-transit.

The solutions need to come from a higher political power — the sort of power to which we do not have access. However, we do have access to the local powers that have access to the higher powers. This is where community starts to play a huge role in reshaping our energy-dependency.

So begins one solution to energy-dependency: localism. It is nearly taboo to emphasize localism in what is touted a global village, but the global village is as energy-dependent as anything.

Aspects of localism include working nearer to home. In the Los Angeles area, this would make a good dent in the colossal traffic problems, which would make a colossal dent in our hyper-consumption of gasoline and the clouds of filth that make pretty sunsets. However, finding jobs close to home is another story. To make this a possibility, we need to encourage local governments to design a city plan that includes job creation — and I don't mean opening WalMart or a casino. Service jobs are not the answer. Local governments need to determine economically sound ways to entice higher-end jobs into the community. One way to accomplish this, for example, is to also encourage responsible housing development near commercial centers. Better yet, local governments would be wise to begin designing mixed-use space — commercial / residential areas where folks can walk to white collar jobs, shop down the street, and take an edge off at the neighborhood pub.

There is, for some reason it seems, a sort of stigma or incredulity associated with things like local farmers' markets. But the prices for local vegetables are incredibly low, compared with supermarkets. Anecdotally, I got a two bags of peppers, a bag of onions and a bag of tomatillos at a local market for $5. The same vegetables in the supermarket would have been about triple that. Why triple at the supermarket? Because I would then pay for the oil that supports the distribution chains and the petroleum-derived plastics that package the vegetables. That is an oil tax. Additionally, I would pay for national advertising campaigns and rising electricity bills that the well-lit and air-conditioned supermarket has to support. None of this is bundled up in the cost of the farmers' market vegetables: the vendors are local, so only drive a few miles; the market is in a local parking lot, so there is no building lease or electric bill; and there are no advertising campaigns. Hence, the costs are about a third of what I would pay at the supermarket.

I have heard reactions to this similar to the entitlement-egoism discussed above — that "I want to go to the supermarket and I'm willing to pay and it's my choice." Reactions of that nature have been sufficiently dispensed.

Importantly, something like going to the farmers' market involves a lifestyle shift. It is my feeling that many think of ad hoc markets like these as dirty or substandard — as if supermarket vegetables have never touched dirt? A deeper thesis is that the energy-dependent lifestyle that most of us have adopted results from larger institutions and organizations taking control of consumer perceptions.

The perception-control thesis, briefly, derives from such evidence as professed SUV "safety" — which often ignores the ease of rolling the machine over without colliding with other objects. And there's the Home Depot thesis: that perceptions of what count as quality lumber and fixtures and service are simply what big box retailers provide, for that is virtually all that is available. Put simply, alternatives are an endangered species, and reasonable working knowledge of alternatives is what underpins freedom of choice. But this is a much heavier debate. Suffice to say, vegetables have been in dirt, whether they're purchased from a farmers' market or a supermarket. End of story.

Mixed use buildings share a social stigma like the farmers' market. In many cities that have experienced urban sprawl, living in the city is a mark of a low-brow — class lives in the suburban housing tracts — really high class lives in Malibu or the hills around Santa Monica. Again, my feeling is that this is an issue of a perception that has been (largely) successfully marketed to us. And, it is a byproduct of entitlement-egoism — this because the housing tract lifestyle often involves NIMBY: not in my backyard. This applies to the neighbors as much as it does to shopping centers freeways. The suburban housing tract sits far from the crime, pollution and general evils of the cities. If the consequence is to drive to the things we need and the places we work, so be it, or so says the entitlement-egoist.

The suburb dweller pays an enormous oil tax. The suburb dweller, obviously enough, pays more to fuel his or her automobile. And the automobile is absolutely indispensible. The suburb dweller does not have a local market, and so must visit the supermarket, where the oil tax for packaging and shipping and food storage is enormous. The suburban house tends to be oversized, and so the suburb dweller pays more for heating and cooling. Suburban landscaping costs enormous amounts of water — though nowhere near the amount consumed by the commerical crops that they eat. The pool, the lawn tractor, the trips to Home Depot gobble up resource after resource. And there is no end in sight.

What do we do? First, look for local products to consume. Find work near where you live, or find a place to live near where you work. Raise your own awareness of energy consumption and dependence. Practice not consuming to learn what changes will need to come in your life as prices escalate. And reflect on your position in the community. If you find yourself falling into the trap of entitlement-egoism, dig out. Realize that it is a) a naive moral position; b) a product sold just like an automobile or inground pool or any other false need.

American entitlement egoism is an addiction to consumption.



An article focusing on Alaska
A brief but concise summary


Department of Energy


According to the Wikipedia


Ethical Egoism

Pesticides & Fertilizers

Oil in Pesticides
In Various Consumer Products
Department Of Energy Main Site

© 2004 Sorrell