SimpleStepsSimple Steps editorial director had a phone chat recently with Dr. Sarah B. Warren, a psychologist and addiction specialist who offers an interesting perspective on the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, and whether we can be moved to confront and take action to overcome our quenchless thirst for oil.

Simple Steps: Dr. Warren, you are a psychologist with 20 years experience helping individuals conquer addiction and deal with its lasting repercussions. The calamitous oil spill in the Gulf brings into sharp relief America’s addiction to dirty fuels. What parallels can you draw between our collective behavior as regards oil and addictions that may be more familiar to us, such as smoking, drinking, drug use or gambling?

Sarah Warren: Addiction is ugly. By contrast, recovery is work, but tremendously rewarding not just for alcoholics but for the families.

The spill in the Gulf is no aberration. It’s a consequence of our habit. Our appetite — like any addict’s — does not diminish as oil reserves dwindle. Alcoholics do desperate things like drink grain alcohol. So oil companies venture into deeper waters, beyond the limits of responsibility, to keep giving us the fix we demand. This kind of drilling costs human lives, the lives of other living creatures, takes a toll on the health of residents, and destroys the livelihoods of those who depend on a healthy ocean. A parallel process is underway with coal and tar sands as we resort to more desperate and risky measures to feed our addiction to fossil fuels.

Does our oil habit comport with the patterns of other addictions? If so, are there lessons to be learned that we might apply to treat this particular dependency?

The disaster of the BP oil spill brings into sharp focus elements that are familiar and useful in addiction treatment: denial, rationalization, and the unintended harmful consequences that help addicts wake up.

At the Deepwater Horizon site, they were trying to harness a torrent of abrasive, sand-bearing oil powerful enough to explode a rig. They were literally “beyond their depth,” able to drill the well but not able to control it if something went wrong. It takes an addict’s will to deny the obvious: Rigs like this will break, and break catastrophically.

Denial can be a useful psychological coping mechanism. Or not. Denial helps us cope in the face of realities so painful that they might overwhelm us psychically. But, as appears to be the case with the BP executives, denial can also prevent us from accurately measuring the risks in advance, from connecting actions to consequences, and recognizing the wider circle of harm that flows — in this case literally — from our addiction.

Take a good look at the ruined beaches, the shrimpers who’ve lost their livelihood, possibly forever, the destruction of the nation’s most productive estuary, the photos of innocent dead sea turtles. Recall the stories of those rig workers who got off the rig during the explosion — barely, but perhaps emotionally scarred for life. Don’t blink.

This is what hitting bottom looks like.

So BP execs are in denial that they can manage the risks or chalk up a spill — even a disastrous one like the Gulf spill as the cost of doing business. What about us? What role do we play in all this?

It’s not just oil company execs that are in denial. As a society, we have been living without awareness of the effect of our lifestyles on the natural world. In the past, that was not denial; that was ignorance. For quite a while, the public didn’t have a lot of information about how we were impacting the environment and putting our children at risk by living our consumer-oriented, addicted-to-oil lifestyles.

Now we have more information. I don’t feel too terribly about the way I was living before I became aware of the implications of my choices. And certainly, like most of us, I’ve been busy raising a family and working, and had plenty on my mind. I just wasn’t thinking about how my choices affected the environment, now and in the future.

Not any more. Now, I’m informed. These days, you have to make an effort not to be. We can hardly open a newspaper or magazine or listen to the news without being reminded of the planetary crisis, and how we can “live green” to help correct the problem. The animated movie Arctic Tale, released in the summer of 2007, reminds us that how we live here affects the animals in the Arctic.

If I fail to act now, that’s denial.

The parallel to the denial of the addictive process here is that we now have lots of indication – scientific data and signs in our own backyards--about how our lifestyles put our children at risk, just as an alcoholic’s drinking does. As long as we continue to consume vast quantities of oil, gas, plastics, aluminum, paper products, electricity, and stuff that’s hauled half way around the world to get to us, much of it bundled in huge amounts of packaging, we engage in denial about the impact of our behavior on our children and their children. In this, we are not unlike alcoholics consuming too much alcohol, destined to either profoundly regret our excess or die in denial.

A cardinal feature of addiction is rationalization. Alcoholics often say things such as, “I deserve this drink because I had a hard day,” or, “It’s OK for me to drink today because I’m celebrating.” The variations go on: “My husband drinks more than I do, so why should I quit?” Or the classic, “I’ll quit tomorrow.” If I say to myself, “I’m just one person, it doesn’t matter what I do,” or “Why should I inconvenience myself by recycling when my next door neighbor doesn’t?” or if I say “Why should I trade in my SUV for a hybrid when China is continuing to increase its emissions?” I am rationalizing my behavior. I’m justifying not changing. And the problem persists, and worsens.

It’s as if we’ve been on a collective binge since about 1960.

Precisely! Only instead of drinking, we’ve been consuming lots of stuff. And instead of getting DUIs and lab results telling us that our liver is shot, we’re getting what I call “global weirdness” and a host of complications like rising asthma and cancer rates, taking the problem to a crisis level.

Our actions have caught up with us.

Do you think we can muster the collective will to fight our addiction?

Consequences are good teachers. The BP disaster is delivering a wake-up call on our addiction to oil. If we can recognize we have a problem, we’re better positioned to take action. Not just as individuals. I can challenge myself to turn off my computer and fight my “need” to continue buying sassy shoes. But just like a drinker who can’t battle her cravings alone, we need a supportive community to join in fighting our collective addiction, and choose as a country to get on the path to recovery. We need to know we’re in this together.

Consider how the community helped fight the consequences of over-drinking. The organization MADD organized, lobbied and ultimately brought us tougher laws, safer roads. We can put similar controls on our use of oil, and set price signals that motivate us to conserve. Just as ordinary citizens lobbied to make our roads safer, we need to use our voices to protect the natural world and our families from the ravages of our fossil fuel dependence.

You believe the American Power Act is a means by which we can begin to address our addiction?

I do. With the American Power Act, we have a bill in the Senate, finally, that uses market mechanisms to manage our energy use. If we want to get out of denial and reap the rewards of going into recovery — and ensure our children a life without this spiraling addiction — we each need to conserve energy, yes, but what we really need to do is support our Senators in passing a strong bill that puts a price on carbon.

Joining with others, taking part in a citizens’ call for a new clean energy policy is positively empowering. It may seem small, but quite the opposite is the case, a simple call or letter shows your resolve to support solutions to our collective oil addiction. And what I’ve learned now from my experience as a newly involved voter, is that our elected officials want to hear from us. Our voices do matter.

It’s true, big oil is big, and powerful. But there are a lot of voters in this country, and lots of us painfully aware of the impacts our oil addiction is having on real people, their livelihoods, and life-giving ecosystems. Then sit down and write the letter, or the email, or pick up the phone, and tell your representative how you feel. It’s empowering, rewarding.

And it’s what getting out of denial looks like.

A recent poll showed that while most Americans believe we’re too materialistic, that we over-consume, they don’t believe they themselves consume too much. What does this say about our addiction?

Addiction distorts perception. Maybe we’re not in denial about the problem, but are we in denial about the solution? Are we as individuals and as a society ready to pay more for oil or to invest what's necessary to develop alternative energy?

This article was reprinted with permission from

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