A lot of writers are talking about our addiction to oil and saying the obvious -- that it's time to stop it. But the very nature of addictions is that they don't change easily. I once asked my friend Susan to explain to me how, despite her intentions to not smoke, she could walk by a convenience store and ask me to wait while she went in to buy cigarettes. What happened in her brain to silence her intention to stop the habit and instead empower her amble into the store? Basically, she said, the overwhelming imperative to satisfy the addiction screamed louder than her judgment.
Another way to think about our relationship with petroleum is as an abusive relationship. I know from such a relationship with a person 30 years ago that people don't leave abusive partners easily. We see the best, not the worst, in our partners, and we fear the loss of attachment more than the emotional manipulations of the present. We get sentimental about the unique culture of our relationships.
Our nation's relationship to oil, especially to automobile transportation, is like that. We love the sense of freedom from cars more than the dangers of road travel. We love the power, and increasingly in a world built around cars, we love the convenience more than we dislike the cost of gas. When our daughter got her driver's license two weeks ago, I was even reminded of how learning to drive is a token of maturation.
In the meantime, we've ignored the deep dysfunction of our relationship -- communities split by interstate highways, auto casualties, air pollution and environmental damage from oil drilling and from processing oil sands and oil shale. Many of us have ignored the relationship between our dependence on oil from unstable countries and our nation's military operations.
Sometimes it takes a jolt so unambiguous, so extreme that the truth of a problem can't be ignored. At least that's how I finally shed my abusive relationship. A single attempt by my partner to hit me physically crossed the line. For my friend, a cancer scare got her to stop smoking.
Suddenly, we are struck by a photo of a gull dripping with oil as thick as chocolate. The heartbreaking stories of fishermen without income, towns imperiled economically, and whole swaths of the country compromised by the oil spill are making us think. Perhaps we are at that threshold moment regarding our addiction, our abusive relationship to the oil economy.
Even military spokespeople are speaking out about the costs of our oil addiction. A National Guardsman named Evan Wolf has an Internet video urging us to "make America more secure, with clean American-made power." And in late April, more than two dozen retired generals and admirals wrote a letter to Senate leaders expressing concern about how our nation's oil dependence "makes us vulnerable to unstable and unfriendly regimes."
When the nation is at war, leaders of opposition parties routinely commit themselves to foreswearing partisanship in the interest of national security. If our distress about our over-dependence on petroleum is sincere and as widespread as some polls suggest, it offers a chance to transcend partisan blaming and move toward actual change. With the energy bill in the Senate, we have a timely opportunity to convert our collective distress into energy conservation standards, investments in clean energy, and new approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org