05/18/2014 - 23:30

Addicted to oil

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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More than eight years ago, then-US President George W. Bush warned that “America is addicted to oil.” He was right about the diagnosis. But he was wrong about the treatment.

Bush called for replacing Mideast oil imports with homegrown ethanol. That’s like prescribing methadone for addicts who can’t stay off heroin. Except that methadone actually helps addicts live healthier lives, whereas ethanol is even worse for the climate than gasoline.

Instead of looking to scientists, politicians, and economists for ideas about how to address the climate crisis, maybe it’s time to turn to mental health professionals. They’re the experts on why people engage in self-destructive behaviors, and on what can help addicts break these bad habits. The first step, of course, is for us gas-guzzling Americans to recognize that we have a problem—and not just with Congress or with oil and gas companies. A problem with our own brains.

Diagnosing a disorder. The fifth and latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the mental-health bible commonly known as DSM-V, has a revised chapter for “substance-related and addictive disorders.” Each disorder is divided into mild, moderate, and severe categories. A severe disorder is diagnosed if the patient exhibits six or more of these 11 criteria:

  • Taking the substance in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.
  • Wanting to cut down or regulate use of the substance, with multiple unsuccessful efforts to do so.
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining and using the substance.
  • Craving the substance.
  • Using the substance so much that it interferes with obligations at work, home, or school.
  • Continuing to use the substance even when it causes social or interpersonal problems
  • Giving up or reducing important social, occupational, or recreational activities in order to use the substance.
  • Continuing to use the substance even when it is physically hazardous to do so.
  • Continuing to use the substance despite already having a physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused by the substance.
  • Requiring markedly increased amounts of the substance as time goes on.
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms, such as agitation and irritability, when trying to quit.

Substitute “fossil fuels” for “the substance” in the criteria above, and you’ll see that humanity is dealing with an extremely severe addiction. We’re using more and more fossil fuels with each passing year. When these fuels are expensive or in short supply, we get extremely upset but are willing to sit in long lines for hours to obtain a fix. We’re so hooked that we find it hard to imagine how we can live without fossil fuels, much less have any fun. We know (even if we don’t admit it) that we are killing ourselves by polluting the air and altering the climate. And those of us in better-off countries know that we are harming other people too, particularly people who are not heavy users themselves. But we can’t seem to stop this harmful behavior, despite repeated attempts to cut back on our use. In fact, many of us fly off the handle at the mere suggestion that we have a problem.

Getting treatment. If fossil fuel use has become an addiction, what does that tell us about how to deal with it? First we need to recognize that the root of the climate problem lies within our minds, not in the environment. Our own dysfunctional thinking is what causes us to overuse fossil fuels, which in turn raises the temperature of our planet. Only by treating addiction as a disorder of the brain can we hope to change the poor decision-making and pathological behavior patterns that stem from it. There are many treatments for addiction, but the ones most strongly supported by solid evidence include:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

This type of therapy helps addicts recognize and avoid erroneous or negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—and replace them with greater self-awareness, new thinking, and ways of reacting that are less self-destructive. For example, the addict could learn how to spot behaviors that cause cravings for fossil fuels—attending NASCAR races or reading advertisements for exotic vacations, say—and then avoid those triggers. Even hard-core addicts can learn to question their own dubious thinking: “Why would thousands of scientists lie to the public about climate change?”

Motivational interviewing

In this approach, therapists help addicts recognize the difference between how they are living right now and how they would like to live in the future. Engaging the addict in guided conversations creates motivation for change, and helps the addict see how his substance use interferes with his goals. For example, after talking with a “climate counselor,” a fossil-fuels addict might realize how much healthier he would feel if he bicycled to work instead of driving alone, or how much money he would save if he didn’t need a second car.

Contingency management

Therapists use this method to help addicts avoid temptation, by offering rewards such as cash or job opportunities in exchange for staying clean. Even small reinforcements can be surprisingly effective. For example, rewarding electricity- and water-stingy customers with a smiley face on their utility bill can help make a difference in their energy usage. Peer pressure can also be a powerful force for good. Remember that it once seemed as normal for everyone to smoke cigarettes as it now does to consume fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow.

12-step programs

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous may attribute their successes to a higher power, but probably their biggest strength is the peer-to-peer support they provide (through weekly or even daily meetings, for example) in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Recovering from fossil-fuels addiction would be a lot easier if all of us were going through it together, and getting together regularly to talk about the difficulties we face and how to cope with them.

Going cold turkey. Quitting abruptly is, of course, the way that many addicts begin a treatment program, whether on their own or in rehab. While that is probably not a realistic option for most fossil-fuel addicts, it is important to recognize that addiction requires a much more radical approach than today’s leading proposals for combating climate change. You don’t cure alcoholism by scaling back from 10 drinks a day to eight, or end compulsive gambling by switching from daily casino trips to weekly ones. Likewise, building solar panels and driving electric cars is not enough to end fossil-fuel addiction—and believing that these are sufficient solutions is just one more sign of delusional thinking.

Stopgap measures do not help people develop true self-awareness and make major changes to eliminate self-destructive habits. They do not set people on the path to a new and better life. They do not acknowledge that climate change is a public health problem. A mental health problem.

The first step to overcoming addiction is, of course, a willingness to confront the problem. Interventions can help—particularly if the reality check comes not just from scientists but also from clergy members, business leaders, military heroes, and other messengers—but ultimately the addict himself must want to change. The ambivalence and hostility that surfaces daily in America’s climate discussion may be a positive sign, because it suggests that we are not completely unaware that we have a problem. Perhaps it won’t be too much longer before we’re ready to focus on the benefits that can come from getting this monkey off our back; to acknowledge the feelings of loss that inevitably result from giving up a cherished substance; and to take the first steps toward changing our consumptive behaviors and strengthening the support systems that can help us avoid triggers and relapses.

All it takes to get started is a simple admission that our lives have become unmanageable and we need help. Hi, my name is Dawn, and I’m a fossil fuels addict.