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The price of our oil addiction

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By Michael Watts
Photographs by Ed Kashi
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The following is an excerpt from "What Matters," the latest book by "Day in the Life" series creator David Elliot Cohen. For more information, see

In the Ogoniland village of Kpean, an oil wellhead that was leaking for weeks turns into a raging inferno.

In the Ogoniland village of Kpean, an oil wellhead that was leaking for weeks turns into a raging inferno.

Addiction exposes the deepest forms of physical and psychological dependency. It is typically considered a personal affliction or an individual failing. But the deadly solicitations of any addictive substance -- cocaine, alcohol, nicotine -- rely upon a social, economic, and political infrastructure.

The great behavioral scientist Gregory Bateson, who studied addiction at the Langley Porter Institute in San Francisco during the 1950s, drew an analogy between the addict and a runaway car precisely to highlight the "system of addiction."

He wrote: "The panic of the alcoholic who has hit bottom is the panic of the man who thought he had control over a vehicle but suddenly finds that the vehicle can run away with him. Suddenly, pressure on what he knows is the brake seems to make the vehicle go faster. It is the panic of discovering that it (the system, self plus vehicle) is bigger than he is. ... He has bankrupted the epistemology of 'self-control.'"

The crack addict needs the dealer; the trafficker needs the producer; and each is embedded in an immense empire of shady government officials,mules, cartel acolytes and peasant growers, as well as a vast shadow world of drug barons, security forces and corrupt governments.

There are those -- social psychologist Stanton Peele is one -- who believe that addiction has become an epidemic of modern society. Addiction, says Peele,"is not . . . an aberration from our way of life. . . . [It] is our way of life." Addiction industries enable and pathologize all manner of behaviors -- from shopping to gambling to drinking to the Internet. Addiction, in other words, is a peculiarly modern condition, the loss of both personal and social control. Some addictions are deep, structural and radically destructive; they expose the morbidities of modern life and of modern capitalism.

There is no better place to read about the pathologies of contemporary addiction than William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." For Burroughs, a longtime opiate addict, drug addiction is part of a "junk economy" in which the "junk virus" is a parasitic organism that invades and controls increasingly compliant subjects. In Burroughs' world, drugs produce a "grotesque consumer" reduced to one "overpowering bodily need." Life, he says, telescopes down to one fix. Drugs are the "ideal merchandise": no sales talk necessary.

The pusher does not sell drugs to the consumer; the consumer sells himself to the product. The addict knows no limit, no control; he is the capitalist consumer par excellence. He would, says Burroughs,"lie, cheat, inform on friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need." In Burroughs' universe, the junk economy is ingrained in a wider economy of control in which the human body is subject to all manner of parasites that multiply in large bureaucracies, complex technologies and multifarious social organizations. The individual human body, under siege from a "vast hungry host of parasites," is reduced to what Burroughs calls "a soft machine."

Burroughs depicts a terminal capitalist world: the deadly deceits of the market, big business, state control and technological terror, and the mass production of mindless subjects. It is a dark, dystopian vision, but one that speaks directly to the realities that surround us: chronic dependency, demand without limits, violent acquisition and addictive control. One of these realities is the energy system -- hydrocarbons in general, and oil and gas in particular -- that undergirds our modern way of life.

I want to pose the following question: Is our dependence on oil a sort of addiction? What is the symptomology of petroaddiction, and what are its social costs? Is oil, to return to Burroughs, the ideal commodity for neoliberal free-market capitalism? Have vehicularized and, increasingly, sport-utilitized American consumers become Burroughs' archetypical soft machines, beset and enslaved by hydrocarbon capitalism?

We could begin with President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address. America, he said, is "addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."As a former oilman and a former alcoholic, he should know oil addiction when he sees it. Five years earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy report deployed another word from the lexicon of addiction: Americans' oil fix could be obtained only through "a dependency on foreign powers that do not have America's interests at heart" (my emphasis).

What neither man admitted was that America's oil addiction rested upon a post-World War II "global oil acquisition strategy" -- the language is from Michael Klare's book "Blood and Oil" -- that now lay in ruins. America's oil strategy, a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy since President Roosevelt met King Saud aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in 1945 and cobbled together their "special relationship," succeeded in fueling the low-cost, motorized American way of life.

But the true costs of cheap oil -- a vast military presence in the Middle East; environmental damage, including global climate change; the need to support corrupt "oilygarchs" -- have never been paid by consumers at the fuel pump. And a half century of "special relationships" -- or, more precisely, addictive codependencies -- have only produced Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, in the end, September 11, Osama bin Laden's murderous response to the permanent deployment of American troops in the oil-rich Saudi holy land.

OPEC's surplus capacity is currently at an all-time low; there is a deep suspicion that so-called booked reserves -- estimates of recoverable oil -- may be inflated fictions. Newly motorized economies in India and China need a growing portion of world oil production. Speculation runs rampant in commodity exchanges, stoked by political turmoil and conflict in many oil-producing states and by "resource nationalism" emboldened by the high prices .The price of oil rises on fear and conflict, so petro-states can raise the cost virtually at will by provoking crises and conflicts -- usually with the United States.

As a result, international oil companies, national oil companies, and oil-producing states are awash in money. Their profits are unprecedented. ExxonMobil, the largest of the international oil companies, has a market valuation of nearly $450 billion, or slightly more than the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, it booked a net profit of more than $40 billion, which translates to a stack of dollar bills more than 10,000 miles high. The national oil companies -- the so-called New Titans that account for 90 percent of global oil reserves and more than one-third of output -- are equally flush. But to all intents and purposes, they are black boxes -- massively corrupt, completely unaccountable and poorly managed.

One commentator described the Venezuelan national oil company (PDVSA) as "a party with the lights out and the music on full blast." In 2007, the OPEC states alone raked in a staggering $688 billion. The Gulf countries each bank roughly $5 billion a week. Hey, addiction pays. We are now in the midst of the third great oil boom (the first two being 1973-74 and 1979-80). Like previous booms, the current one has transferred unimaginable wealth from oil-importing to oil-producing countries, and from consumers to oil companies.

But the current oil crisis, set against the Global War on Terror, has two novel characteristics. One is the vast wealth of oil-producing states in a global industry where the best and largest assets are not in the hands of what the Economist calls "the most efficient and best capitalized firms," namely the major oil companies. The other is the rank complicity of the American empire, militarism and corporate power. Not only did a former oilman (surrounded by a posse of other former oilmen) stalk the halls of the White House for eight years, but as Kevin Phillips writes in "American Theocracy," oil now stands at the summit of American politics and "an oil, automobile, and national-security coalition has taken the driver's seat."

Contemporary talk of the end of cheap and easy oil -- and the surge of oil prices to more than $100 per barrel -- reminds us of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and President Nixon's "Project Independence," designed to achieve U.S. self-sufficiency by 1980. For the record, U.S. dependency on imported oil in the late 1960s was 20 percent; it is expected to be about 66 percent by 2025. Nixon's policy failed miserably, and he resorted to enhancing domestic supply at a terrifying environmental cost and by turning to reliable low-cost foreign suppliers.

"Oil security" -- through unconventional oil sources, enhanced oil-recovery and "green fields" (i.e., previously untapped oil fields; nothing "green" about them) -- were also talking points thirty years later in the Cheney report. Alternative energy sources and energy conservation (both of which would "compromise the American way of life," as George Bush père put it at the Rio conference on the environment in 1992) barely warranted a mention. Cheney's motto was always "go where the oil is." In 2005, that meant drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming, and Azerbaijan, and raping the vast tar-sands of northern Alberta.

But nowhere has America pursued its search for new oil with more ferocity and dedication than the west coast of Africa, particularly the Gulf of Guinea. African oil production along the Atlantic littoral has attracted huge exploration investment, and the region will contribute more than 30 percent of the world's increase in liquid hydrocarbon production by 2010. During the last five years, when undiscovered oil fields have become a scarce commodity, Africa has contributed one in every four barrels of new petroleum discovered outside North America. Africa is Big Oil's new battleground.

Former oilman Jeremy Leggett writes in his book "The Empty Tank" that energy security has three legs: "The Empire of Oil,""The Culture of Suppression," and "The Great Addiction." Ed Kashi's photographs of the Niger Delta -- one of Africa's frontier oil regions -- capture, more powerfully than words, the ugly, violent on-the-ground realities of Leggett's Holy Trinity at work. Hear Kashi describe his photos in an audio slideshow »

What is the true nature of oil dependency? More than 150 million years ago, massive blooms of microscopic marine plants created a huge blanket of organic material on the sea floor. In some locations, sedimentation created sufficient pressure to convert -- to cook -- the unoxidized carbon in the organic material into oil, some of which was trapped in reservoirs. A second phase of oil formation occurred 90 million years ago. Most oil stayed put until its discovery in 1859. With the invention of the gas-fueled automobile in 1901, black gold became the drug of choice, and its ascent marked the coming of Big Oil. By the time Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel "Oil!" in 1927, the corruption, violence, corporate power and pure ambition that became the oil industry's hallmarks were already in place in California.

Eighty years later, 90 percent of our transportation is fueled by oil; 90 percent of all goods involve oil in some way; and 95 percent of our food products require oil. (To raise one cow and deliver it to market requires more than 250 gallons of oil.) Globally, the world consumes more than 80 million barrels every day; the United States alone accounts for one-quarter of that. According to most industry expectations, by 2025 global oil consumption will increase by more than 50 percent.

Exactly where this oil will come from is unclear. The irrefutable reality is that more growth -- the primary objective of capitalism -- means burning more fossil fuel. Petro-addiction is in large measure an obsession with the automobile and mobility. The vast corporate nexus of the oil, automobile, and petrochemical industries -- enabled by the military and political power of the American imperial state -- constitutes the system of addiction. In 1900, 57 percent of all U.S.-refined petroleum was used in kerosene lamps.

By 1930, nearly half was consumed by cars. In the same year, there were 143,000 gasoline stations, 219 vehicles for every 1,000 Americans, and an auto industry capable of absorbing 80 percent of all rubber, 75 percent of all glass, and a quarter of all steel. Private automobiles now account for more than half of all U.S. oil consumption, and the transportation sector as a whole uses almost three-quarters. Two-thirds of this oil is imported. There are now more than 250 million registered vehicles in the United States, one for every 1.2 Americans; and more than 17 million new vehicles are sold annually. The growth sector for the last quarter century has been light trucks, a category in which fuel efficiency has deteriorated over time.

The number of gas-guzzling SUVs has grown steadily, from 2 percent of the market in 1975 to more than 25 percent in 2003. America's immediate response to September 11 was slapping flag stickers on SUVs and buying Hummers. Oil profligacy is the end result of a century-long addiction to motorization, the product not of consumer sovereignty, as the Bush administration suggested, but of the vast corporate power of the oil-automobile nexus.

To what lengths will this addiction be pursued? The answer is not simply to the ends of the earth; the mad pursuit has also taken us to the bottom of the ocean. Deepwater exploration is the latest holy grail of Big Oil. On August 2, 2007, a Russian submarine with two parliamentarians on board planted a titanium flag two miles beneath the North Pole. At stake were lucrative new oil and gas fields -- by some estimates ten billion tons of oil -- on the Arctic sea floor. Two weeks later, it was announced that the fabled Northwest Passage was navigable for the first time in recorded history, facilitating the new oil frontier. The ecological preconditions for this unprecedented event were, of course, global warming -- another product of Big Oil.

In late 2006, a consortium discovered oil at a staggering depth in the Gulf of Mexico. The test well, Jack-2, delved through 7,000 feet of water and 20,000 feet of sea floor to tap oil trapped in tertiary rock laid down 60 million years ago. The drill ships and production platforms required to undertake such deep drilling are massive floating structures,much larger than the largest aircraft carriers and costing well over a half billion dollars (and close to a million dollars a day to rent). In 2007, the vast new Tupi field in Brazilian coastal waters was discovered in 200 meters of water below a massive layer of salt in hugely inhospitable geological conditions.

One test well cost more than $250 million to drill. But the addict, says Burroughs, knows no limits to satiate his craving. The deadly logic of addiction -- the drive to acquire oil at all costs -- is experienced with particular ferocity in the oil-producing states of the equatorial region and global south. Ed Kashi's work in the Niger Delta documents the existential nightmare of what oil wealth means in reality.

An inventory of the by-products of Nigerian oil production is a salutary, if dismal, exercise: 85 percent of Nigerian oil revenues accrue to 1 percent of the population. According to former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, at least $100 billion of the $600 billion in oil revenues collected since 1960 have simply "gone missing."

Nigerian anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu says that 70 percent of the country's oil wealth has been stolen or wasted. From 1965 to 2004 Nigeria's per-capita income actually fell from $250 to $212, while income distribution deteriorated markedly. Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of people subsisting on less than one dollar a day in Nigeria grew from 36 percent to more than 70 percent, from 19 million to a staggering 90 million.

During the last decade of Croesian oil riches, GDP per capita and life expectancy in Nigeria have, according to World Bank estimates, both fallen. To conclude, as the International Monetary Fund has, Nigeria's $600 billion in oil revenue has actually contributed to a decline in the country's standard of living. No wonder former Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC cofounder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo dubbed oil "the devil's excrement."

Perez proved prophetic. After nearly four decades of oil riches, Venezuela's per-capita income is lower than it was in 1960. But nowhere is the so-called resource curse more profound and visible than across the Niger Delta oil fields. For the vast majority of the delta's 30 million people, oil has brought only misery, violence, economic and cultural degradation, and a dying ecosystem. A United Nations report on human development in the delta concluded, "The vast resources from an international industry have barely touched pervasive local poverty."

By conservative oil industry estimates there were almost 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000, more than one each day (the real figure might be twice or three times that number). Gas flaring (burning off natural gas released by oil drilling) in the delta produces 70 million metric tons of carbon emissions a year -- "a substantial proportion of worldwide greenhouse gas," according to the World Bank. A World Wildlife Fund report released in 2006 simply referred to the Niger Delta as one of the most polluted places on the face of the earth.


By almost any measure, Nigeria's oil-producing states are a calamity. The United Nations estimates that between 1996 and 2002, the human development indices (education, life expectancy, income) actually fell in the core oil-producing states. Since 2000, the rage felt by marginalized and unemployed men across the Niger Delta has taken a militant turn. In late 2005 an armed insurgency erupted in the creeks of the Delta, led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). For the better part of two years, the Niger Delta has been more or less ungovernable -- effectively a war zone.

The history of our addiction to oil is a chronicle of violence, corruption and the worst excesses of frontier capitalism and social Darwinism. It was the case when the Nobel and Rothschild families grappled for control of Caspian Sea oil in the late nineteenth century; it is just as true now in the Gulf of Guinea. Like crack, tobacco or any other addiction enabled by a vast, powerful industry (Is it surprising that Big Tobacco financially supported global warming skeptics for years?), our oil addiction is hugely destructive, defies logic and is nearly impossible to break. But unlike crack and tobacco, we will eventually run out of oil.

Ed Kashi has photographed in 60-plus countries. His images have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and other publications. His work on West Bank settlers received a World Press Photo award. His eight-year project, "Aging in America: The Years Ahead," won prizes from Pictures of the Year and World Press Photo. Kashi and his wife, writer/filmmaker Julie Winokur, founded Talking Eyes Media, a multimedia nonprofit.

Michael Watts, who wrote the above essay, is Chancellor's Professor of Geography and Development Studies and director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Watts has received grants from the Rockefeller, MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundations, the last to study the interplay of oil, politics and wealth in West Africa. He is the author of five books. His latest, in cooperation with Kashi, is titled "Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta."

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