11 September 2001>Commentary>Our Leaders Should Seize the Moment to Kick Our Oil Addiction

Our Leaders Should Seize the Moment to Kick Our Oil Addiction
Danila Oder . Common Dreams . 14 September

It’s three days after a terror attack on the continental United States. Today and tomorrow, memorial services. This weekend, days of quiet. Monday, the stock market will resume trading. The time of collective reflection will have passed. People will focus on their own lives, having given moral support to the President and Congress in their actions this week: an authorization for war, and funds for disaster relief. But for two more days, public attention is still focused on our leaders. Our disturbance gives us room to reconsider our paradigms, reassess both our own lives and what makes us Americans. And what have we heard from the national politicians and intellectuals? Talk of war and retaliation. That is to be expected. But deeper - very little. The attack is described as a swipe against our freedoms. As the manifestation hatred of our way of life. As the despicable act of cowards. Fine-sounding, meaningless phrases. Because they give us no information on how WE need to change.

In any relationship, both partners contribute. Both partners perceive each other. Like it or not, in some sense we have provoked this attack. So we must try to uncover what we did, and what we can do better.

So far, all the talk has been about the politics of U.S. foreign policy. How the U.S. tilts in the Israel/Palestinian conflict. U.S. sanctions on Iraq. The U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the results of the Persian Gulf War. Fine. These are issues that affect how others perceive us. But let’s go a level deeper.

The U.S. could be more “even-handed” with Israel. It could, theoretically, cut off Israel altogether. But even if Israel disappeared tomorrow that would not reduce the hatred against America among the fundamentalist Islamists who attacked us, and their ideological confreres. The U.S. would not change its Mideast presence and its policy of protecting the oilfields for the benefit of the U.S. economy.

Think about it. Our bases in Saudi Arabia would remain. We would be trying to keep Iran and Iraq at loggerheads. We would have cruisers in the Persian Gulf. The CIA, smarting from the stupidity of its initial support of the Taliban, would continue its policy of supporting secular leaders, like Khadafi and Saddam Hussein in preference to Islamists.

Thus, our attackers would continue to hate the U.S. for our military presence in the region, and our support of secular (and authoritarian) leaders. And there is a third reason we should not ignore: American secular culture.

The American culture that is broadcast around the world by unaccountable global media corporations is not a way of life that Americans should be proud of. It has nothing to do with freedom and the “American values” of democracy, equality and trial by jury. It is mostly garbage television, action movies, and a relentless consumerism. The media barrage is accompanied by the colonizing activities of American corporations whose garbage products, like cigarettes and fast food, become status symbols in Third World countries.

That bastard culture and its commodities is pushed onto helpless peoples worldwide by a government whose policy of “free-trade” masks an economic imperialism that requires the Third World to industrialize and destroy their cultures, or stay out of the game. The Islamists are right to hate that culture.

What can we, as American citizens, do about a hatred that will not disappear, and which we have limited power to reduce?

We could reduce our need to be in the Middle East. Our leaders could make a commitment to energy independence based on renewable, low-impact energy sources.

Unfortunately, for almost 30 years they’ve pretended the 1973 OPEC oil embargo had no effect on the American economy. From a surplus in the early 70s, the annual U.S. trade deficit has steadily increased and now exceeds $400 billion, with petroleum products the largest imbalance. About half of our oil imports come from OPEC. Yet our car culture and our energy-intensive agriculture depend on cheap oil. The commercial airlines, who depend on the illusion that air travel is as safe, cheap and easy as overland travel, depend on cheap oil. That’s the main reason we’re in the Middle East.

Our leaders should use this time of dislocation for a paradigm shift. They could point out that we are responsible for the foreign policies resulting from our addiction to oil and gasoline. American money has enriched the oil-producing states in the Middle East. One could say that we funded the terrorists at one or two removes.

Will President Bush tell us we’re addicted? No way. He’s an oil man. Vice President Cheney is an oil man. Chief of staff Andrew Card is an automobile man. If Bush mentions energy, it won’t be to promote solar or wind energy, or higher fuel standards. He’ll call for more nuclear power and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a national treasure that would replace a grand total of two years worth of oil imports.

Energy independence using sustainable, renewable resources cannot be achieved in a year or two. It is probably impossible. But we must try. There are many changes possible on local, state and national levels: required conservation, energy standards for appliances, higher fuel standards for vehicles, funding for research into renewable power, and more. Energy independence would decrease the military and economic imperialism an imported-oil-based economy entails. It would decrease our need to modify the politics and culture of the Middle East to suit our own purposes. It would also diminish the U.S. need to go easy on states that fund or harbor terrorists like Bin Laden.

The confirmations of global warming have already told us that U.S. energy policy must change. We can leverage this time of reflection and soul-searching to accept a new paradigm. But responsible leaders must speak out, bravely and forcefully, and soon. This opportunity will not occur again.

Danila Oder is a writer and activist in Los Angeles. E-mail:doder@hsc.usc.edu