Gregory Stephen's Weblog
Thursday, December 11, 2003
Spreading Our Wings: The Cost of the "Regime of Oil"
by Gregory Stephens

Many people have been asking recently: What country do we live in? The answer came to me in the dream life of the culture, a television ad for a Cadillac SRX. A young couple is driving this fleet SUV up a mountain road, the sunroof open, not another vehicle in sight. They put their hands out the windows and begin mimicking an eagle floating on air currents. "Spread your wings," the narrator says.

On Thanksgiving Day just after this ad ran on CBS I saw Boomer Esiason and other football commentators giving thanks to the troops in Iraq for protecting our freedoms. You have to read between the lines in the full-time fantasy league of Media America to realize that the freedoms we promote and defend are very selective. Driving a luxury SUV like the SRX that costs about $50,000, weighs 4,300 pounds, and has a "stealth fighter aesthetic," as one critic wrote, is one of those freedoms. Peaceful protest, apparently, is not.

Recently $8 million of the $87 billion budget for the Iraqi occupation was spent terrorizing protesters and non-embedded journalists at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. This Miami Model showed that if the Bush administration and its supporters have their way, America will be a country in which political protest is marginalized and criminalized. "The war is coming home," as Naomi Klein wrote. It is "open season on dissent," concluded Robyn Blumner, writing in the St. Petersburg Times. Our tax dollars have been put to work occupying foreign nations, sending out hit squads, and criminalizing dissent at home. Is this America?

Suppressing dissent in the United States out of the same budget used for military occupation is part of the cost of enabling this nation to live in colossal denial. When we want to fly like an eagle, or get away for a close encounter with nature, we can do it enclosed within two or three tons of steel. Car ads teach us why the American way of life is so great that it can never be challenged, as our national leaders have proclaimed. True to the denial of addicts, these ads almost never show another vehicle on the road, or hint at the over 3,000 traffic fatalities per day in the world, or per month in the U.S. No one is asked to intuit that all those people trying to get away are not moving towards paradise, they are helping pave it. There is no suggestion that the white lines of the freeway are wiping out the eagle's habitat.

In early 2003 a group called the Detroit Project aired TV ads that linked America's oil habit to terrorism. These ads connected the gas nozzles that pump 380 million gallons of gas in the U.S. every day (55% imported), to the loss of freedom and lives in the parts of the world dedicated to feeding our habit. Some stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit refused to air the ads. After all, a fifth of all ads in the U.S., costing around $15 billion per year, relate to cars.

Momentary glimpses of truth in advertising like the Detroit Project, or the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, were a bare glitch on the radar screen. I ride my bike to the school where I teach, and almost every day, someone asks me: "Why do you ride a bike?" in a tone of befuddled accusation. "Why, do you want me to drive a car?" I ask. "Yes," the students say. This is the only world they know.

I hear a lot of rightly outraged people urging their fellow citizens to "take back America." I know they mean well, but they bring to mind the song lyric: "I went to join the revolution, but I couldn't find a parking space." To take back America we'd have to tear up the asphalt that covers it.

It's a hard truth to swallow, but the regime of oil is following our lead. They are meeting the needs of all of us who, like that couple in the SUV, take the dominion of cars for granted, and imagine that, like the American eagle, we are soaring above the earth, lords of all we survey. How do you take back America from suburban moms, who are the biggest fans of behemoths like the Hummer?

What would it take, I wonder, to break through the self-absorption of "the only nation ever to drive to the poorhouse in an automobile," as Will Rogers once said. In her book Asphalt Nation, Jane Kay Holtz writes: "There is no question that deposing the car from its dominion over the earth is a radical, even revolutionary move." But the design of our cities assures our dependency, and makes wars in oil-rich nations inevitable.

In his book Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, geologist Richard Heinberg predicts that global oil production will peak between 2004 and 2009. In fact, oil production declined from 2001-2003, while the miles we drive continues to escalate--now over three billion a year in the U.S. A rational response to this crisis would be to redesign our cities and our lives. But as George Monbiot observs, "no one ever rioted for austerity."

We desperately need to design more fuel-efficient vehicles, and to build mass transit. Yet Congress has made available outsized tax breaks to Americans who purchase vehicles that weigh over 6,000 pounds, and get 10 miles per gallon or less.

There is no shortage of scientists who recognize the need for a dramatic about-face in our lifestyle and energy policy. Physicist Dr. Martin Hoffert and his colleagues have published essays in Science and Nature magazines calling for "an energy research program on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program." Given the coming disaster of global warming, Dr. Arthur Nozik of the National Renewable Energy Lab insists that our survival is "going to require a revolution, not an evolution" in our development of alternatives energy sources and modes of transportation. Even U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham speaks of the need for "revolutionary technologies" that "transform the way we produce and consume energy."

We cannot have security while trying to spread our wings in an SUV. The earth cannot sustain that, and other nations are increasingly refusing to be co-dependents. But imaging and building an alternative is a challenge without historical precedent. This much is now clear: the current "regime of oil" not only will ignore that challenge, it will treat as "potential terrorists" all those who publicly question our self-destructive path.

[Gregory Stephens is a Bilingual Teacher in Oklahoma City, and a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Langston University. He has taught Mass Communication and American Studies at the University of California, and was recently a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of North Carolina. Contact: 405/922-6959;]

ADDITIONAL SOURCES (most references hyper-linked)

Among those who refer to the "regime of oil": Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2002).

Ads as "dream life of culture," Sut Jhally quoted in "The Ad and the Ego," available at

Overview of scientists calling for energy revolution: Kenneth Chang, "As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy," New York Times, November 4, 2003; Amanda Griscom, "A Declaration of Energy Independence," 6-30-03;

Martin Hoffert et al., "Energy Implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content," Nature 395 (10-29-1998).

Tax breaks for SUVs and 3-ton vehicles: Neela Banerjee, "Pushing Energy Conservation Into the Back Seat of the S.U.V.," New York Times, November 22, 2003.

Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton UP, 2003).

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