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A 12-step program to cure America's oil addiction

President Bush almost came clean in his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 31 when he finally admitted that "America is addicted to oil."

Two years ago, deep in the Amazon jungle, I heard a similar analysis from a leader of the Kichwa Nation, an indigenous community in southern Ecuador. "Our people will never be free as long as your country drinks oil like it is water," she told me. "Until you stop, we will never truly be free."

She was speaking of how oil exploitation threatened the traditional lifestyle of the native community, but she may as well have been speaking of America itself: Our oil addiction threatens our national security, our environmental health and our way of life.

It is true that our leaders are exhibiting the classic signs of an addiction -- denial, aggression, avoidance, blaming others -- and as a country, we are falling far short of reaching our full potential.

America is a country that liberated Europe from Nazi fascism, invented rock and roll, put a man on the moon and mapped the human genome, yet our stubborn dependence on oil erodes bedrock values. For it, we will go to war, support unstable and undemocratic regimes, destabilize our climate, decimate our forests and parks, threaten the health of our children and weaken our economy.

The president admitted to a national problem, but stopped well short of committing our country to a full recovery program. We already have the technology. What we desperately need is the courage to act now. Our leaders -- government and corporate -- have demonstrated a clear lack of leadership and political will to meet this challenge. It is time for nothing short of a national intervention and a 12-step program to break America's oil addiction. Here's how it works:

Step one: Let's admit that we have a problem, and commit deeply and truthfully to a national recovery program to break our oil addiction. Our country, and the world, deserves better. Transitioning to a clean energy economy will create millions of clean jobs; clean our air; protect our water supplies, our forests and our climate, and will help to build a safer and more secure world for us all. But breaking our addiction requires humility and an unwavering commitment to change at every level of society. No one gets a free ride anymore, especially the world's richest energy companies.

Step two: Separate oil and state. Every year, oil companies "invest" millions of dollars in political candidates at every level of the U.S. government. In turn, elected officials dole out more than $20 billion a year to prop up fossil fuel projects internationally. One of the first steps to ending our collective addiction to oil is to reduce the oil industry's influence over public governance, and to eliminate government handouts for dirty oil.

Steps three to six: Jump-start Detroit and redesign American mobility. The transportation sector accounts for more than two-thirds of all oil consumption in the U.S. Our passenger train system scrounges for funding in Washington, while one out of every seven barrels of oil in the world is consumed on America's highways alone.

Led by Ford Motor Co., the American automobile industry is driving in reverse. The average Ford vehicle today gets worse gas mileage than the Model T did almost 100 years ago.

Thomas Friedman is right -- the stability and very existence of the American automotive industry depends upon American automakers building affordable, fuel-efficient cars that all patriotic Americans can support. Pioneering engineers have already built Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), and new companies are inventing super-efficient biofuels made from agricultural waste with no help from Detroit or Washington.

Steps seven and eight: Start a rooftop revolution and green the grid. California is enacting regulations to build a million homes with rooftop solar power, generating 3,000 megawatts of power. Studies show that solar energy supports up to 10 times more jobs than fossil fuel energy. A green grid powered by the wind and the sun can recharge car batteries and help us kick our oil habit.

Steps nine and 10: Wean to green and fund the future. Simply put, follow the money. Capital investment from the world's largest banks is the fuel in the engine, so to speak, of the oil-based economy. Through their investment decisions, large banks can either help to keep us hooked on oil or rapidly steer us toward a clean energy future. Multinational private banks must publish full accounting for their contributions to climate change -- and commit to reduce their environmental footprint -- or they will continue to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Some banks, including Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, are leading the way, proving that it is indeed possible to do well by doing good.

Step 11: Adopt a "low-carb" energy diet. Any comprehensive strategy to break our oil addiction must include aggressive measures to reduce energy consumption. A low-carbon energy diet will reduce energy costs and increase competitiveness for American businesses, lower emissions and produce clean jobs for workers. Efficiency improvements in the last 30 years have doubled the amount of work we get from each barrel of oil. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, current proven technologies can double oil efficiency again, for less money than would be required to buy the oil we save.

Step 12: Vote. Could it be any clearer that we need responsible and visionary leaders at all levels of government?

Like a smoker who says he's going to quit someday even as he lights up another cigarette, President Bush offered little hope that he would actually break our country's oil addiction. For a country that uses enough oil to fill a football field 2,500 feet tall every day, it will take a lot more than a speech and a few research dollars to set us free from oil.

Freedom from oil will help our nation to create clean jobs, protect forests, make our foreign policy more just and more effective and help to stabilize our climate. Let's get to work.

Michael Brune is executive director of Rainforest Action Network and serves as a founding board member of Oil Change International.

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