A Nation of Addicts

WHEN I WAS a young man, I worked for a while as a drug counselor, first in a methadone clinic, and then in a heroin detoxification unit. I have seen and know something about addiction. I later earned a PhD in political science, in the process acquiring an idea of what the Founders of the American political system were trying to accomplish. If we take seriously the news that Americans are “addicted to oil,” it means we have become a nation of addicts, and the question that must be addressed is what a democracy composed of addicts portends for our future. Reconciling a population of addicts with the principles and practices of the American political system will not be easy. In fact, it will be impossible: democracy wasn’t built for addicts.

The Founders of our democracy bequeathed to us a legacy of cultural values that display the diversity of their social perspectives. One group argued that politics was about the public, patriotic pursuit of the common good of the community. Americans were viewed as citizens who would be willing to sacrifice for the general welfare. Other Founders asserted that humans are essentially individuals and not community members. These consumers are primarily motivated by the passionate pursuit of their economic self-interests and should be given the freedom to seek their unique pleasures in their unique ways. Over the years, we as a nation have never totally accepted nor totally rejected either vision. We have ignored the logical contradictions and constructed a society where people are encouraged to be both patriotic and self-interested.

But where do addicts fit into this picture? Surely the addict cannot be considered a virtuous citizen. The essence of citizenship is a concern for the community and a willingness to forgo personal pleasure for the common good. The addict cares nothing about others or tomorrow, and for this reason, addiction and civic virtue are antithetical. Either the craving for the addictive substance will destroy all other pursuits, or the republic must cure the addiction and convert the addict into a citizen.

On the surface there may appear similarities between the addict and today’s consumer, but these melt with closer scrutiny. Like an addict, the consumer may be a pleasure-seeking (an economist would say “utility maximizing”) individual, but consumers know there are costs and benefits associated with their various choices, and they are rational enough to engage in calculations regarding these trade-offs. For the addict, there is no alternative to acquiring the addictive substance, and that is why they will pay any cost and ignore any harm their addiction will cause. Economic markets, built upon the assumption of rational consumers, are institutions ill suited to restrain addicts bent on ever greater overindulgence, even unto death.

If America is “addicted to oil” we will have to reach deep into our Founders’ legacies for the strength to struggle against what we have become, for the truth is that there is a citizen, a consumer, and an addict in each of us. Citizens and consumers might grimace at the difficult policy choices lying ahead, but they will acquiesce in the face of necessity and move to have tough energy policies that restrict our addiction to oil put into practice.

It is urgently important that Americans not let our inner addict supersede our citizen and consumer. Imagine, just for a second, what would happen if we let the addicts run the methadone clinics and the detoxification units. Imagine what will become of America if we let our oil addiction determine the fate of our democracy.

Franklin Kalinowski’s book-in-progress is Environmental Legacies: An Ecological Interpretation of the Constitution. A different version of this essay appeared in The North American Review.


  1. Franklin Kalinowski’s ignorance of the reality of addiction seems to me to result in his simplistic misuse of the observation that “Americans are ‘addicted to oil.'”

    As I am a recovering addict, this doesn’t surprise me because of his first sentence: “WHEN I WAS a young man, I worked for a while as a drug counselor, first in a methadone clinic, and then in a heroin detoxification unit.” It rings to me of the arrogance of the youth–a young “non addict” who is going to “counsel” us, addicts, out of our addiction. Were that possible, there would have been no need for Bill W. and Doctor Bob to have started the movement that led to the identification of the 12 steps and 12 traditions via which the we, participants of AA and the other anonymous movements, obtain our individual recoveries.

    Mr. Kalinowski made no distinction between us, addicts in recovery, and those of us still enslaved to our addictions or who are only “dry” addicts. Do I want an active (or, even worse, a dry) addict “run[ning] the methadone clinics and the detoxification units?” No. Do I want recovering addicts running them? Hell, yes! And ONLY them!

    In 1987, Anne Wilson Schaef recognized the much broader problem America and the world faces when she wrote her book, “When Society Becomes an Addict.” Americans’ addiction to oil is only ONE of our addictions, ONE of our drugs of choice.

    So, yes, Mr. Kalinowski, I can “imagine what will become of America if we let our oil addiction determine the fate of our democracy.” We will will continue down the path already laid out by our previous addictions. And our addictions will, ultimately, kill us.

    What he doesn’t seem to fully understand is that the false dichotomy he sees at our founding (i.e.,”citizen” versus “consumer”)is at the heart of our problem.

    Democracy needs for us to claim both Kalinowski’s “citizen” and his “consumer” for we are both AND SO MUCH MORE. And it is our wholeness that democracy needs to fulfill its potential.

  2. Addicted to oil? Kick the car habit.

    ~~~ _

  3. I don’t agree with Mr. Kalinowski’s comments, but I also take issue with some of Harry H.’s.

    I worked in a counseling center that included substance abuse counselors. Both admitted to using addictive substances; one said, of course I know abuse, why else would I be in this position? This goes with other experiences in that what I’ve seen in counseling agencies is that those who recognized the need for counseling for some reason are those who want to help others with the same problems, even if in different ways. And not all identify themselves as such.

    I do agree that recovering addicts are a wonderful source, suited to help run clinics. I also think we need all the help we can get in dealing with addiction.

    And I think every US citizen has the right to express views. You don’t have to be an Nobel prize winner in economics to see some of our major economics problems, nor do you have to have been a Poly Sci major to have had intelligent commentaries about the previous “administration.”

    And yes, we are a nation of addicts, but not only to substances. We have many addictions to ideas of various types as well. We all need to look at ourselves, of course, and see if we can deal with any of our addictions. And some of us will deal; some will not.

    The larger picture is the tipping point, either toward health or toward death.

    I do agree that democracy needs for us to look at both citizens and consumers. We are both, all, in the same boat.

    A senior who was heavily addicted to 3 packs/day of nicotine, who took a year to quit and then had to quit again a year later, and who dreamed of smoking for 15 years after that (I think it was writing the article on how to quit that finally put an end to it).

  4. Dr. Kalinowski seems to suggest, from a sociological point of view, that an “addict” is a consumer without reason and/or a citizen without empathy. My personal history, profession (I am an addiction counselor), and background in psychology cause me to rebel at this construct, but for a moment I’m going to take it at face value.

    If an addict is a consumer without reason, then the addict’s desire is simply to consume more of the resource faster than his/her competitors, as a bacterium does in its infected host. The end game is the same in either case – the host either dies or beats the infection – but so is the cause: short-term propagation. We benefit enormously from the products and services that fossil fuels provide, allowing us to live lifestyles that facilitate their own propagation through our children and our peers who emulate them. Such behavior can hardly be considered “unreasonable,” at least in the short term.

    As for empathy, who would not want a diesel-powered engine running the ambulance to the hospital rather than a horse-drawn carriage? Who would not want to expand travel options for the poor, the disabled, or the children to get to work or school? Would you give up petroleum-powered trasportation if it meant giving up access to beloved friends or relatives in another city? another state? another region?

    I would assert that each of us knows exactly why we are using fossil fuels, and that the choice to use them for concrete present needs rather than ration them for hypothetical future ones makes those choices entirely reasonable to us. Which is to say that Kalinowski’s definition of an “oil addiction” isn’t quite tenable to my way of thinking.

  5. If we are to assert that we US citizen-consumers are “addicted to oil,” I think we need to begin the discussion in a different place: what needs does the substance fulfill, and how can the citizen-consumer meet those needs in other more sustainable ways? This is a much more complicated problem because addiction is a deeply personal phenomenon. No two people benefit in quite the same way from their compulsive use of a substance or process, and so the “recovery” from oil needs to be tailored very much to the individual.

    This isn’t to dismiss sociological contributions. “Cash for clunkers” is a great place to start, as is an investment in rail travel and battery technologies that make electrified transportation more feasable. But you also need to help the citizen-consumer find ways to get to work affordably, choose a local vacation over an exotic remote one, and overcome the status-seeking behavior that requires a sleek black Ford Expedition parked next to the jet boat in the driveway. You need to increase empathy for the land and the living things on it alongside the citizen-consumer’s empathy for his or her family and friends, so that they feel genuine sorrow at the road-widening project that destroys natural habitat.

    Our constitution preamble begins with, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” Recovery is always the beginning of new and renewed relationship with other people, with one’s place, and with one’s “higher power” – actions that always lead the the formation of a more perfect union. I appreciate Mr. Kalinowski’s high regard for this vision of the possible, and wish him the best in its pursuit.

  6. Our addiction doesn’t end with oil, it begins when we get in teh car. We then drive to get some quick pre made corporate food, drive to the mall for corporate fashions and drive our children to their friend’s homes when we would have riden bikes as children. What we are truly addicted to is our illusion of freedom in our cars and yet so much time and oil is wasted on completely unnecessary trips to add to the corporate consumtion.

    Last summer at a church picnic I was asked why I hadn’t been to church in quite some time, and I responded that in fact I was attending another denomination because it was in fact three blocks from my home and I enjoyed the walk and that I felt God knew where to find me. My denomination is six miles each way. I was told I might lose my church membership. I laughed and walked away.

    I have found freedom in living well below what the standard is and spend my time volunteering and working much less than my collegues, because my recycle it lifestyle allows my to live as a recovering American consumer. One day at a time, one conscious decision at a time.

    I too want the recovering oil addict at the helm rather than the corporate yes man… or woman

  7. I applaud your life style. I wonder how the rest of our culture can pick up such good habits so that they become routine. Just as we all worked during WWII to conserve for the war effort, we
    need to change in a way that seems natural. I wish we know how we promote the willingness. Perhaps when top leaders stop trying to win electoral points and start seriously dealing with issues. Much of my generation gets it, but we need younger citizens to get it as well.

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