“I used to think that I was cool
Driving around on fossil fuel
Till I found out that what I was doin’
Was driving down the road to ruin.”
— James Taylor
My name is Cathy, and I’m a fossil-fuel addict. Yep, I drive a car, and I’m frequently the only person in it. I rarely take the bus, and I fly somewhere at least once a year. I live alone; I grow only a tiny amount of the food I consume. And according to the “ecological footprint” calculations of Redefining Progress (a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes sustainability), if everyone lived like me — and I’m an average North American — we would need an extra three planets!
Just consider our collective local lifestyle: There are more cars and trucks (62,751 and 14,310, respectively) registered in the city of Asheville than there are residents (68,889 as of the 2000 census) — and that’s counting children and old folks who can’t drive. What’s more, the discrepancy is growing: Between 1990 and 2000, the number of motor vehicles here increased 23 percent, whereas population increased by only 18 percent, according to data from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.
That’s just transportation. But our craving for unlimited electric power displays a similar pattern. Progress Energy’s Asheville plant includes two coal-based units that run all the time, providing 392 megawatts, and two natural-gas fueled units (capable of producing 330 megawatts) used during peak-demand periods. The coal units alone use 3,000 tons of coal per day, according to Progress Energy.
Face it: We’re hooked on fossil fuels. But like any addict, we’re in denial about the life-threatening nature of our addiction, which we usually don’t even think of that way. Most of us are also in denial about the fact that, production having peaked while demand still soars, fossil fuels will soon become prohibitively expensive. Very few of us have “hit bottom” yet and realized that our present way of life is both unmanageable and unsustainable.
Traditional 12-step programs provide some clues as to what recovery might look like: 1) Admit that we are powerless to control our use of fossil fuels and that as a result, our lives have become unmanageable. 2) Make a searching moral inventory of the effects of our overconsumption of fossil fuels. 3) Make a list of all people and species we have harmed through our addiction to petroleum, natural gas and coal. 4) As much as possible, make amends. 5) Promptly admit it when we’re wrong. 6) Believe in a power greater than ourselves who can restore us to sanity — and into whose care we would place our lives. 7) Ask this higher power (God as we understand him) to remove our defects of character and shortcomings. 8) Through prayer and meditation, improve our ability to know God’s will for us and receive the power to carry it out. 9) Having had a spiritual awakening, carry this message to other fossil-fuel addicts.
Consider that our fossil-fuel use — right now, right here in Buncombe County — is contributing to global climate change. And this, in turn, will create a great deal more suffering — for ourselves, as we endure more floods; and for people and other species around the world, whose habitat is shrinking as the polar ice melts and who’ve been harmed by the toxic byproducts the burning of petroleum and coal creates in the environment. Consider our grandchildren, who will inherit our toxic waste and pollution, and will have little or no oil resources left with which to manufacture wind turbines or solar panels. Consider the casualties from the war in Iraq (and many other wars) caused by the desire to control the remaining oil reserves. Consider the destruction of the Southern Appalachians, whose peaks are now being dynamited off in quest of coal to keep unlimited electricity flowing. How could we ever make amends for all of these abuses?
As with Overeaters Anonymous, the goal is not complete abstinence but limiting our consumption, so that it is not compulsive binging. We all need to eat, but using food as a drug means eating to fill a spiritual void that food can never satisfy. And to live in today’s world, some use of fossil fuel is inevitable — but we can certainly live without NASCAR. As the fuel supply dwindles and prices continue to rise, we will all be forced to re-examine our lifestyles. Are we willing to “count calories” (the gallons of gasoline or kilowatt-hours we consume)?
Imagine a kinder, greener Asheville! All businesses and homes use compact-fluorescent bulbs or LED lighting, making this city a leader in decreasing air pollution caused by power plants. Wall Street is a pedestrian-only, car-free thoroughfare, to the delight of both locals and tourists — and downtown businesses are planning to make three more streets car-free. The funds that had been earmarked for a parking deck got spent instead on adding buses that run on clean biodiesel produced locally (using cooking oil discarded by area restaurants) by Blue Ridge Biofuels. Funding was made available for everyone to insulate their homes; new homes all incorporate passive-solar designs and high-efficiency heating systems. Bike lanes have been added to various local roads, and more people have chosen to live in the center of town and bicyle everywhere. As people spend less time in their cars, community is flourishing; every neighborhood has its own public garden residents of all ages are raising vegetables. Fruit trees are planted on the streets and in parks for all to enjoy.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “The most important thing we can do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying.” And in the end, prayer, meditation and listening for the voice of our higher power may well be the most powerful ways for us to heal ourselves and the earth of this insane — and life-threatening — addiction.
[Asheville resident Cathy Holt is the author of The Circle of Healing: Deepening Our Connections with Self, Others, and Nature (Talking Birds Press, 2000). To sign up for Earth & Us, Cathy’s e-mail newsletter, visit her Web site (www.TalkingBirdsPress.com). Cathy also works as volunteer coordinator for the Kindness Campaign and is an advocate for clean water. She encourages anyone interested in Fossil Fuel Addicts Anonymous to call 252-3054.]