Thursday, January 31, 2008

“We’re addicted to oil” – Should I feel bad?

Every time you turn on the radio or the TV, you’re bound to hear something that basically boils down to the following: “we’re addicted to oil” or we’re using too much oil, or we’re being wasteful etc… I would like to ask, what does that mean?

Before I explain what I mean let me say that I understand that we might be running out of cheap oil and that we might not find any large discoveries anymore (like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia). In addition, I recognize that we have a problem with GHGs and it’s necessary to do something about it. My question is: Why is the message trying to make us feel bad when most of the choices people make are not entirely their own. Let me explain.

They say people in America like to drive their cars and love their gas-guzzling SUVs and they can’t use mass transit etc…What does it mean to be car loving? What options do I have? For example in Houston a lot of people live in the suburbs and drive downtown for work (it’s funny but it seems that the suburbs of Houston will eventually encompass Austin). Those folks that live out in Katy or Sugarland are driving 20 to 30 miles each way. Yes they’re using a lot of gas but it’s not because they love their cars and it’s not because they are addicted to oil it’s simply because they live far away from work and because there is no other viable alternative (affordability of housing within the city limits is a big issue in Houston).

Most cities in the US are not planned around public transportation and thus car usage becomes necessary. In addition, most cities in the US do not encourage high occupancy type living (high rises and apartments) so people have no option but to look for housing in the suburbs and they have no incentive to stay closer to the city center.

Ok fine so some people like to drive large SUVs (AKA gas-guzzlers). These folks are not terrible and are not environmentally insensitive they just like a different kind of vehicle! Some people are vegetarian while others are steak lovers – who’s better? (Now that I read the entry about meat production I’m feeling a bit guilty about my beef-short-rib dinner last night). Some people work close to home while consultants have to travel perhaps multiple times a week. Are consultants to blame because of their carbon footprint! Some airlines are offering customers the option of paying extra to offset their carbon “costs”. Even UT jumped on the bandwagon! When you print in the ECJ lab you can check your credits and it’ll tell you what your print job is in equivalent trees killed and lightbulbs turned on! What’s that supposed to mean? I can’t read online – I already wear glasses and my vision is deteriorating, what am I supposed to do, hire someone to read for me???

All what I’m trying to say is that we are not addicted to oil. We are using the means at our disposal – it’s not Exxon’s fault that Joe Blow decides to live in Katy and drive 20 miles (one way to work). It’s not my fault for printing the reading. Rather than saying we are addicted to oil why not say we haven’t been given alternatives or we have no other option.

For example, large parts of Western Europe don’t use air conditioning (over the last few years the market for ACs grew a bit in France) because it doesn’t get too hot in the summer and even if it did it only last for a few days. On the other hand, large portions of the US face over 5 months of high humidity and high heat – do I blame those folks for using their ACs 24/7 for 5 months? No, it’s not they’re fault – they’re not addicted to oil and they’re not addicted to coal (for electricity powering their ACs), they’re definitely not addicted to ACs – they’re just hot!

All what I’m saying is that we should not blame the user – we should give competitive options and incentives to change and then we will see results. This guilt trip is not gonna work! Now where’s my steak!

PS: My apologies if this post offends anyone but I just wanted to express my honest opinion on the matter!


Candide said...

I appreciate your thoughts. I think it might be worth mentioning the research of Dr. Brene Brown at the University of Houston School of Social Work, especially her book "I thought it was just me." The important point related to your post is that shaming people does not generally cause them to change their actions, it only fosters resentment, anger, and confusion. I think that a lot of the negative talk in America about being addicted to oil and "driving SUVs" is based on shaming individuals that exemplify the behavior. The result is that we get a breakdown in communication, factioning of sides, and allegations of hypocrisy get leveled back and forth. And the media, of course, faithfully reports it all and this immature dialog just keeps on going, working all the way up to the top leadership in our country. I agree that we need to work towards having honest discussions of the problems and alternatives we face in transportation, or any other policy issue for that matter.

John Losinger said...

Although I appreciate the brevity of your post, I must disagree with several of your points.

Firstly, I think that the majority of the issues regarding oil "addiction" stem from the demand side. The reason we are not given alternatives is that we most often don't use them. I am from Dallas and can tell you that after DART installed the light rail system, it has yet to be largely embraced.

In addition, Dallas actually does have relatively affordable housing close to the city and has built (in my view even overbuilt) a dizzying array of highrises and apartments near downtown. Nonetheless, people continue to choose to live increasingly far from Dallas proper (Plano, Frisco, etc.).

Personally, I have always preferred to live close to where I work or go to school; not out of any environmental or economic concern, but out of a desire not to waste hours out of my day commuting.

Secondly, I do think there is a problem with the culture of SUVs. From nearly every aspect, they just don't make any sense. Most SUVs are akin to using an 18-wheeler cab to pull a small U-Haul trailer. This inefficiency is furthered by the completely unecessary inclusion of 4-wheel drive. Do you really think that the soccer mom driving the Escalade suburban has, or ever will, necessitate this gas-guzzling accessory?

All in all, I think that oil "addiction" in the U.S. is a question of scale, and the marrying of needs to use, rather than oil use itself.

It is an efficiency problem. There are numerous steps, many of them simple and cheap, that will do nothing to slow down our economy or impede on our freedom to choose the vehicle we drive.

Auto manufacturers build SUVs because people want to buy them; not the other way around. This is defintely food for thought for the single-occupancy commuter who chooses to guzzle gas on his or her way to work, when they could be saving money, reducing oil "addiction," and helping the environment.

Besides, fuel efficient cars are actually cheaper than SUVs anyway; both in terms of sticker price and long-run fuel costs.

There really are very few good justifications for thier popularity; other than the fact that because there are so many of them on the roads, one almost feels compelled to buy one out of concern for thier own safety.

TammyT said...

To me, what you (hacfred) are describing is exactly an oil addiction. Not an oil addiction of any one person, but an addiction of our nation as a whole. We get nervous even thinking about a society with less oil availability. We start to sweat and twitch…
Our society was built around cheap and abundant oil (and other fossil fuels). These are a necessity for our country to continue along its current path. Is that not an addiction? Half the country refuses to admit there is a problem, ie: The people who say there is no Global Warming, or Peak Oil. Refusing to admit a problem? Is that not an addiction? Do you realize the problem we would have on our hands (the problem we will have on our hands when…) if China and India had the same standard of living that we currently enjoy?
You can’t tell me there aren’t lots of people in India enduring hotter, more humid days than what we deal with here, without AC. But if someone in Texas didn’t have A/C over the summer, you’d think they were crazy. This is because we are accustomed (read: addicted) to a certain comfort level. Imagine one of your classmates telling you that they rode the bus for an hour in the morning to get to campus. Wouldn’t your first response be “Why don’t you drive?” I remember reading somewhere (and if I find it, I’ll come back and add it) that it was quite common for a Chinese worker to ride a train for an hour or two each way to get to work.
This is an addiction. And your defensive (I don’t mean to be offensive so sorry if it comes out that way) reaction I would guess is fueled by the fact that the people in our class are motivated to make a change. If we were personally addicted, we could cut the habit. But we are forced into the addiction by the way our society is designed. But regardless of how we got here and why we aren’t fixing it, we are addicted.
So what can we do? This is similar to the plastic vs paper question. The answer is c) none of the above. You don’t have to choose between paying a higher price to live downtown, and driving 20-30 miles each way to work everyday. There are other alternatives, and you and rk2 above mentioned most of them. It is really hard to make ourselves suffer for the sake of the environment while everyone around us is oblivious. But it’s good to do what we can now, but the important thing is to guide future policy and societal structure towards a less energy addicted state.

hacfred said...

First I appreciate everyone's feedback on what I wrote. It is a healthy debate.

I think tammyt summarized the whole problem with the following statement: "Our society was built around cheap and abundant oil (and other fossil fuels)."

This is absolutely the heart of the problem and in my mind we need to start from here to be able to make a difference. To give you an example, I come from a country where everything is built out of reinforced concrete (we don't use any wood or sheetrock).

Say suddenly we realize that we are running out of cement. My home country (along with many others) will have a very serious problem right? The analogy here: Is my home country addicted to cement? It's like you're saying, the country was built around cheap and abundant cement! (cement for oil...).

With that being said, I'm arguing against a label of addiction.

John Losinger was saying that DART in Dallas has not been embraced - to be honest with you, that doesn't surprise me! As a transportation engineer we are taught to always think of the choices that people make and to try to understand the factors that influence those choices. Discrete choice models (in this context) show that people are simply evaluating the utility of each mode and choosing the mode with the highest utility. Basically, the utility of DART is still lower than that on the private vehicle. Until that changes, people will not change their behavior.

TammyT said...

Okay, we'll agree to disagree on what we should call it. :-) But it sounds like we agree on the problem.