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Taking the first step into Petrolholics Anonymous ...

Editors note: Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., is an expert on marine turtles and recently wrote for us about how plastics in the ocean are mistaken for food (see "Please Don't Feed the Turtles!" at Most recently he's been in the Gulf, and he emailed this report: "I've seen a lot of destruction of the ocean/nature, but the scale of the 'spill' and its impacts is something I'm still trying to get my mind around. The sheer cost in lives and livelihoods and personal energy, not to mention [dollars], is mind boggling. The cost associated with each rescued sea turtle or bird is massive. The time and brainpower spent by so many people around the world thinking about this catastrophe could be spent in so many other good, productive, and loving ways. But we do need to look at it and discuss it deeply." He suggests the discussion might start like this:

"Hello, my name is [your name here]. I am a petroleum addict. I've tried Valvoline, Vaseline, kerosene, gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and natural gas. I've even tried plastics."


The first step to recovery, after all, is admitting you have a problem. It's hard, but that's the way it goes.

Before any real recovery, of course, one must hit bottom--the real kind of bottom, too, not the "worst hangover of my life; I'm never doing that again" bottom that always precedes a relapse.

In this case, true bottom is readily apparent in a Gulf of Mexico infused with toxic petroleum, in endangered sea turtles seared alive by controlled-burn cleanups, in the collapse of sea-based industries like oystering and tourism, in baby albatross bellies laden with indigestible toxic plastic, and, of course, in the telltale sign: our chief-addicts-in-charge babbling on CNN, in complete denial, saying, "We're fine. We can handle it. It's really not as bad as it looks. We can stop any time."

Except ... we can't.

But what if our government took the first step and heeded the intervention playing out before our eyes in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere? Several presidents have admitted our addiction to oil, but none so far has had the 4:00 a.m. man-in-the-mirror moment and said, "Enough."

Before we go on, let's define "addiction," so that we can understand our own complicity in setting the ocean ablaze and in robbing our children of their future.

ad.DIC.tion (noun): compulsive physiological need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful.

Sound like anyone you know? We're compulsive users, for sure. And yes, the substance is physically and socially harmful. If you look carefully, you will see the symptoms of tolerance--and of withdrawal, too: the ability to consume massive quantities and the irrational, often-imagined pain reaction to quitting. When you are addicted, your body requires the chemical.

The dealers might be right: the problem is us. We are addicts. This mega-industry is merely answering a societal need, just responding to an insatiable, albeit self-destructive, demand. "If we don't do it, someone else will," they argue.

But what if we are not "addicts" at all? What if, instead, we are hopelessly co-dependent on a gargantuan industrial complex and the mass production of petrochemicals? In that case, getting off the stuff wouldn't be as hard as we fear. What if beating the addiction is simply a matter of making different choices--choices that have been available to us all along but that have been actively and intentionally obscured by the dealers who don't want us to see them?

Clinically addicted or not, let's give it a shot. Let's kick the petroleum habit.

Here's our 12-step program, fresh from International Petrolholics Anonymous:

STEP 1. We admitted we chose to feel powerless over oil and plastics; that our lives had become toxic and dependent.

STEP 2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves (lucidity and responsibility) and some voice deep inside whispering "Oil is wrong" could restore us to sanity.

STEP 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our individual communities, as we understood them.

STEP 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our homes and lifestyles, where oil and its products, such as plastics, were present.

STEP 5. Admitted to ourselves and to other human beings the exact nature of our engagement with petroleum.

STEP 6. Exorcised the need for a perceived "easier life" in favor of conscious living.

STEP 7. Humbly admitted our shortcomings, our internal combustion engines, and our bottled water.

STEP 8. Made a list of all persons, animals, oceans, ozone, children, ourselves, and plants we have harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

STEP 9. Made direct amends to the entire living planet, wherever possible.

STEP 10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly changed it.

STEP 11. Sought--through the sale of our stocks in companies engaged in petroleum mining and production, reduction in the size and/or change in means of propulsion of our cars, refusal of single-use plastics, not feeling goofy for saying no to a straw, feeling good about using our own bags, not drinking water from plastic bottles--to improve our conscious contact with our one and only planet as we understood her.

STEP 12. Having had a spiritual/practical/ pragmatic/reasonable awakening as the result of these steps, tried to carry this message to people and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

We can engage the patterns of addiction and do what millions of addicts have done: come to grips, band together, use a proven structure to free ourselves, hold ourselves and others responsible for toxic behaviors, and be relentless in our desire to change.

So, let's do it. Let's start Petrolholics Anonymous. Meetings can begin just about anywhere--in a cafe, a basement, or a patio--starting tomorrow. It will work. Will you be there? If so, can you bring some guacamole and chips?

Caption: Gulf Shores, Alabama: July 2010


For more information on things to do to help save the ocean go to
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Title Annotation:Updates & Observations: Sustainability
Author:Nichols, Wallace J.
Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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