My Name is Uncle Sam, & I'm an Oiloholic:

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 8/10/2003

[At the end of this essay are suggestions for action we could take to begin freeing ourselves and our society of "oiloholism," enter recovery, and begin cooling off the burning world. But first, why to do it.]

For months, I have been walking around with a giant poster in my mind eye. It reads:

They cook the books.
They sweat the workers.
They torch great forests.
They scorch the earth and befoul the oceans.
They paid to explode the Twin Towers.
And they made up lies to burn Iraqi cities.

Who are they?

But together we can stop them.
We can grow a world of justice and compassion.

And behind the stark sentences is a full-color graphic:
burning oil rising from a refinery smokestack.


What is the point?

Through symbols and words of intense heat, this medium carries a message of connection. It melts what start as separate agonies in order to meld them into one focus for change.

Questions that many of us treat as separate are actually connected:

Some of us are outraged by the Enron robbery.

Some are outraged by an oil company (Unocal) that rents the Burmese army to smash labor organizers.

Some are outraged that burning the Amazon forest for a few years of cheap hamburger is frying a lot more than hamburgers — sending the entire planet into a disastrous heating-up. (I refuse to call it "global warming," since "warming" is such an emotionally warming word. Global scorching. Or frying. )

Some are outraged at buying Congressional votes to keep SUV outside the rules for reducing gasoline use.

And some by those luscious ads that show a luscious automobile in the midst of a luscious forest see how you need to buy a car to feel good! and fail to mention that the luscious car is actually murdering the luscious forest.

And some are outraged that one eddy-stream of the river of Big Oil went through Saudi pipelines to pay for mass murder by Al Qaeda.

And some by the far greater flow of Oil money that went to pay for Halliburton, Exxon, and all those other corporations to take over the US government. When the corporations then burn cities to expand their control of Oil, the business deal is not murder at retail, which is advertised as "terrorism." It is murder at Bigger Than Wholesale, and the ads to sell it call it "preemptive war."

But notice that for both sets of killers, the money comes from Oil. These siblings may seem to hate each other, but they nurse from the same addictive teat.

What sociologist of Big Oil depredations would have dared imagine that most of the deaths on 9/11 would come from flaming oil, the jet fuel that melted the Towers into falling? Only God-crazed Jeremiah could have prophesied such blood-soaked irony.

If the shareholders who lost their life savings to piratical energy executives, and the union members who lost their jobs to Asian sweatshops, and the mothers whose babies are stricken by asthma, and the people who flinch when an airliner flies too near their office buildings because they can see themselves in a burning dive from fifty stories up, and the soldiers who were poisoned by something that happened in the last Gulf War, and the families of soldiers who are dying every day in the new Gulf War - if we all got together, we could create a society that would not be addicted to Oil.

What is addiction? Turning a substance or behavior that is useful on occasion, in small doses, into a constant ravenous need. Even when its pleasures lead to death. The most dangerous addictive substance on the planet is not heroin, or nicotine, or alcohol, but oil and gasoline.

We need a 12-step program for the whole society.

The first step is knowing we are addicted.

Second: Looking toward a Higher Power the power of the universe that welcomes change, the power with which we can attune ourselves, sharing it to make change happen.

Third: knowing also who the Bigger Power is, who the drug dealers are, so as to free ourselves from their control.

Step 4 is beginning to imagine the day-by-day details of a world not addicted to Oil.

Step 5, the day-by-day work of shaping a piece of that world here, a piece there.

For example: If we declare SUV not eco-kosher, how do we make sure the auto-workers of Detroit can find a job?

How do we plan with care the transition to hybrid cars, to mass transit, to bikes?

Where do we transfer the hundred billion dollars now locked into a military poised to control the oil fields from Iraq to Colombia?

Could we declare those auto-workers and many others fed by oil the "veterans" of the Oil Age that has spanned the last half century, and send them to college through an "Oil Age veterans GI Bill"? Or --- ?

Oil is not the only out-of-control centralized power system where we will need to restore democratic accountability. But it is the most immediately dangerous. And the very fact of its many grasping tentacles offers many accessible opportunities for transformation.

The point of 12-step programs is that community support makes it more possible for alcoholics or other sorts of addicts to kick their individual habits, to enter and stay in "recovery." For an individual addiction that is also a social addiction, like Oiloholism, social action and public organizing also have to be part of the process.

In my own experience and in my reading of history, the most effective form of social change is embodying in the present the challenging future that we seek. (Thus the sit-in movement focused not on legislation but simply integrating the restaurants or (paralegally) registering voters and forcing the system to respond. Laws followed.)

That model, for example, might mean painting bike lanes on major city streets and then beginning to use them in large numbers at concerted times, disrupting auto traffic in the process..

But much that would have to happen requires un-doing the present. Possible example:

Some activists have been "ticketing" parked SUV's with an environmental message. The media have covered their work well. You can see one version of their approach, including downloadable versions of their "tickets," at

And for two news descriptions of a considerably gentler version of such a "street action" and how it worked without rancor in the Washington DC area, how Jewish and Christian congregations worked with environmental groups and others to do this work, and for comments by Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, see: That's the Ticket! From SUV's to a Cleaner Earth and Beyond SUV's: Save Money & the Earth.

I would suggest something even a little gentler, aimed not only at SUV owners but at all conventional cars as well.

Leafleting cars in parking lots with a message like this:

Maybe call the whole leaflet in big letters


In the leaflet, acknowledge that the car owners are seeking transportation that is convenient, cheap, safe, attractive, and ethical.

Gently explain that SUV's in particular and conventional autos in general are poisoning the earth and endangering the future of our children, through global scorching.

Point out that "hybrid cars" are now available that are safe, far less expensive to operate because they use much less gasoline, and as reported by Consumer Reports, solidly practical and worthy transportation.

Ask the car owners to make a firm decision that the NEXT car they buy will be a hybrid. (Note that the leafleting group has no commercial interest in the hybrid car companies, but does have a strong interest in protecting and healing the earth.)

Invite them to sign a tear-off card with their decision on it, maybe offering two choices like this:

"I am xxxxx xxxx, and I am a recovering oiloholic.
I intend for my next car to be a gas-saving, money-saving, earth-saving hybrid.
Please let me know how else I can help."


"I am xxxxx xxxx, and I want more information.
Please let me know how I can help."

Then a space for contact information and a self-addressed envelope for mailing the card to the sponsoring organization.

Members of synagogues, churches, and mosques might start out by doing this in their own congregational parking lots.

They might ask the congregational clergy-person to take the same weekend to speak on "eco-kosher" life-practice. But even if s/he won't, the leafleting could be done.

And then invite the congregants into a new kind of 12-step meeting, to share how to help each other and our country kick the habit.

What would be new about such a 12-step group? Since it would be addressing both individual and social addiction, it would need to include not only group support for individual change — "I didn't drive my SUV today; help me stay off the sauce tomorrow!" — but together taking part in social action as well.

As the "ticketers" gain publicity and confidence, the pressure could go up:

  • A caravan of hybrid cars crowding streets near the US Capitol or Ford and Exxon-Mobil offices, demanding mileage limits on SUV's and an end to their production?
  • Offering a free hybrid car to whomever in these companies begins to whistle-blow on how they pressure, cajole, and bribe politicians in the US and overseas?
  • Assisting and protecting those who whistle-blow on the companies' internal reports on their plans for new car models, subjecting them to public-responsibility environmental impact reviews?
  • As the pressure rises, at some point could the movement for rehabilitating the US out of oiloholic addiction broaden to demand submission to the government and public of all proposals to spend more than half a billion dollars on developing and producing any new product in the US or overseas, so as to review its probable impact on workers, the environment, consumers, and stockholders?
  • Could we require permits to go ahead with the investment only after any serious concerns about the impacts are satisfied?

One day at a time, one week at a time, one year at a time. Recovering oiloholics.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center <>;
author of Godwrestling Round 2; and co-author with Phyllis Berman of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.

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