The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to hit the headlines with today’s news that the escape of oil may be twice as great as previously calculated. The worst environmental catastrophe in American history is even worse than we thought. But there really is more to this story than one disaster and one company. Drilling for oil in oceans at that depth is highly hazardous. There have been other disasters over the years, and there’ll be more in the future, whatever the precautions: all of them symptoms of our addiction to oil.
The Harvard leadership guru Ronald Heifetz makes a fundamental distinction between a technical challenge and an adaptive one. A technical challenge is one that can be solved by an expert. You’re ill; you go to a doctor; he prescribes a pill. Your car breaks down. You call a mechanic. He replaces the broken part. They’re the easy problems.
An adaptive challenge is where we’re part of the problem, and it’s we who have to change: when the doctor tells us that if we’re to avoid a serious condition we’re going to have to change our lifestyle, or when the mechanic tells us the problem isn’t the car: it’s how we drive it. Most of us don’t like having to change, so we’re constantly tempted to look for a technical solution. Let somebody else fix it, not us.
Our addiction to oil is remarkable. Take cars. Many, especially in America, consume fuel at a rate not significantly different from the Ford Model A in 1927. Alternative fuels have long been available. More than a hundred years ago, most cars were electric. They weren’t phased out until the 1920s. Ethanol was used in the Ford Model T in 1908. Rover developed a gas turbine car in 1950. Even without alternative technologies we could still use smaller, more fuel efficient cars. With oil, as in so many other areas, we’re living unsustainably and the next generation will pay the price.
Which takes us back to the beginning of the Bible: Adam, Eve and the forbidden fruit. I read that as a story about limits. The Bible is telling us that there are things we can do and want to do but should not do, and if we can’t control our appetite we’ll find ourselves with another paradise lost. That’s no consolation for the people of Florida but it is a warning to us. We have to learn to live responsibly for the sake of the long term future. No one else can fix that except us.