Addressing Our Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Most of us have reaped the benefits of an economy powered by fossil fuel. There is no need to list the wonders, comforts, conveniences, and prosperity wrought by this century-long dependence. But we can no longer ignore the extreme costs. We are on a collision course with ecological reality.

Our ethical base also leads us to question the justice of our consumption habits, and our compassion leads us to take action to prevent suffering. It is well known that we in the United States, with about 4.7 percent of the world’s population, use about 25 percent of the world’s energy and contribute almost 25 percent of the heat-trapping gases. In all countries, the effects of fossil fuel extraction, production, and combustion, and the burdens of a degraded environment fall disproportionately upon the most vulnerable and helpless: the poor, the sick, the elderly, and future generations.

It’s time for us not just to realize, but also to act upon the fact that our dependence on fossil fuels puts us in direct conflict with core values embodied in Friends Testimonies of Integrity, Peace, Simplicity, Equality, and Community. As Friends, we place great value on ethics, compassion, and love, and we show respect for the sacredness of God’s Creation. Our love for one another can lead us to protect the ecological systems that support our community of life. Our respect for the sacredness of life and the natural systems that sustain it must lead us to work to prevent their violation and desecration.

Seeds of War

Recent events have shed glaring light on the dark side of our nation’s dependence on fossil fuel. Destruction of the World Trade Center towers is but one of its most dramatic manifestations. War with Iraq may well be another.

U.S. foreign policy is now driven largely by our dependence on oil. Our government maintains a global military presence to ensure the flow. It makes deals that support oppressive governments and overlooks gross violations of human rights to feed our country’s habit.

One glaring example of human rights abuse in the oil industry is the slave labor that was used in Burma to construct a pipeline for U.S.-based Unocal in the 1990s. Terry Collingsworth, in the Fall/Winter 2002-3 Open Society News, wrote: “Working with the big American oil company Unocal to build a pipeline in the 1990s, the Burmese government used its security forces to enslave rural inhabitants for days and weeks at a time. Villagers were forced at gunpoint to work on the pipeline for days on end without food and water. Those who failed to work enough were often beaten or killed.” The International Labor Rights Fund and the Center for Constitutional Rights have separately brought lawsuits against Unocal on behalf of these Burmese villagers charging that the oil company, with the help of the Burmese government, knowingly used forced labor. Jury trials for both cases were scheduled for February 2003.

To ensure our access to oil, we train and arm factions like the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then we look the other way when these weapons are used to enforce despotic rule. (http://www Energy and War—November 20, 2002)

Testifying before Congress in 1999, General Anthony Zinni said that the Gulf Region, with its huge oil reserves, is of “vital” and “long-standing” interest to the U.S. Since the end of World War II, a major goal of U.S. strategic doctrine is to ensure that we have “free access” to these reserves through both military and economic means.

The George W. Bush administration has built its public case for war against Iraq on the dangers posed by Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and on Saddam Hussein’s malevolence and his human rights violations. Many knowledgeable observers, however, agree that a core issue driving U.S. policy is a desire to exercise control over Iraqi oil reserves. ( /security/oil/2002/08jim.htm)

Gross inequalities of wealth and power among nations fueled by huge disparities in the use of fossil fuels sow the seeds of war. Our Peace Testimony calls on us to work to take away the occasion of war. Ending our dependence on fossil fuel has become an essential expression of this testimony.

Seeds of Corruption

Corruption in U.S. institutions has been a major force in hindering an appropriate response to our growing dependence on fossil fuels. Nothing illustrates this link better than the rise and fall of Enron. Enron flourished in Texas and then nationally under government policies and subsidies bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industrial complex. While the Bush administration and other politicians have tried to disassociate themselves from the debacle, the close ties between Enron and the administration are well documented. Bush named CEO Kenneth Lay to his transition team, where he worked with Vice President Dick Cheney on national energy policies, and some 50 former Enron executives, lobbyists, lawyers, or significant shareholders ended up working for the Bush administration (

In the last presidential election, George W. Bush was the number one recipient of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, and Enron was the top contributor in this group, with Exxon Mobil second. Large sums from the utilities industry also fed Bush’s campaign. In his two years of fundraising to pay for his run for president, he received more money from electric utilities than any other federal candidate in the past decade. (
The fingerprints of Enron and other corporate interests are evident throughout the administration’s energy proposals. These proposals were embodied in legislation that stalled in the last session of Congress, but are certain to be resurrected this year.

The Enron story exposes a stunning lack of integrity—blatant and insidious—among leaders in government, industry, financial institutions and the media. It challenges us to confront deep threats to democracy itself that are associated with our dependence on fossil fuel. Our Testimony on Integrity calls us to act against these threats.

Seeds of Ecological and Social Disintegration

Our use of fossil fuels is devastating the Earth, destroying cultures, and endangering human health. To discover and recover oil, roads are slashed through rainforests, drilling sites contaminate fresh water and soil, leaky pipelines spill millions of gallons of crude oil on wildlife and pristine tundra, and indigenous people are pushed to the brink of extinction. The temporary influx of cash upsets economies, corrupts governments, and concentrates wealth among a few. Oil refineries pollute the air, soil, and water of the impoverished communities that surround them. The extraction of coal devastates entire communities as it removes mountaintops, destroys watersheds, and leaves behind 100,000,000-gallon toxic slurry ponds.

The combustion of coal and oil are responsible for soot, ground-level ozone, acid rain, and an increase in climate-changing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Air pollution exacerbates respiratory illness especially for asthmatic children and the elderly, is responsible for the decline of our eastern hardwood forests, and has poisoned most of the lakes in the northeast U.S. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. contributes about 25 percent of the climate-changing gases, and yet the U.S. government has withdrawn from international negotiations to address worldwide human-induced climate change. (http://www

The true costs of fossil fuels are staggering and cannot be measured in dollars alone. The administration’s proposals to expand fossil fuel production and increase our dependence on them, as described in the President’s National Energy Policy of 2001, are politically corrupt, ecologically and economically dangerous, and morally bankrupt. ( /HQPress/releases01/maypr/energy_policy.htm)

Towards a Sane Energy Policy

Now is the time for Friends to speak out for energy policies that are environmentally sound, socially just, and economically feasible. Such policies would explicitly aim at eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and would include strategies, timetables, and investments required to achieve this goal. As a nation, we need to pursue this with the urgency and priority we once gave to other great national goals such as landing a man on the moon.

Clean, renewable technologies (wind, solar, etc.) are currently available. We’ll need more research and investment in emerging technologies (such as fuel cells powered by hydrogen from the electrolysis of water) to make them economically feasible. Renewable sources of energy should be phased in through promotion and subsidy for clean power, increasing emissions restrictions, and decreasing support for dirty power. The policy must pro-vide for a transition to these new technologies that would include retraining of work forces and education of the general public. (>;

Sane policies must account for the environmental, social, and moral consequences of the energy we use. It is up to us to hold our political leaders accountable for enacting such policies.

Renewable Energy Can Stimulate the Economy

Despite the horrendous problems cited above, the future need not be bleak. A number of studies have shown that energy conservation and the use of renewable sources of energy would in fact stimulate the economy:

  1. A World Wildlife Fund study, “Clean Energy: Jobs for America’s Future,” indicates that energy efficiency policies and development of renewable energy resources could result in 700,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the next nine years and 1.3 million new jobs by 2020. (
  2. A report from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) entitled “The 2002 Farm Bill: Revitalizing the Farm Economy through Renewable Energy Development,” shows that developing our nation’s on-farm renewable energy resources (bioenergy, wind, solar, and geothermal) has the potential to boost farmer income, create jobs in rural communities, diversify our nation’s energy market, and protect our environment.
  3. A Department of Energy study, “Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future,” reports that a government-led program to encourage energy efficiency could reduce growth in electricity demand by 20 to 47 percent in the U.S.—a savings equivalent of 265 to 610 300-megawatt power plants.(>;;

In fact, if the U.S. does not invest in the new technologies, it could be left in the technological development dust as other countries cash in on the boom.

What Friends Are Doing

Friends are already taking steps to address issues posed by our dependence on fossil fuels—from working to change our nation’s energy policies to working to change the light bulbs that we use in our homes and meetinghouses.

U.S. Energy Legislation: With Republican control of the 108th Congress, a new energy bill is likely to come forward, but it will surely be worse than the bill that stalled and died in the last session. According to Dan Vicuna of the League of Conservation Voters, the U.S. administration is “likely to pursue an energy policy that opens up the Arctic to oil drilling, gives more taxpayer-funded subsidies to oil and gas companies, and favors polluting fossil fuels over cleaner, smarter energy sources.”

In the last session of Congress, Senate Democrats controlled committees on energy and environmental policies and used this power to criticize and block the Bush administration’s energy plan. Without support in these key places, it is more important than ever for citizens to make their voices heard on these crucial issues. ( /energybill/)

Friends Committee on National Legislation will also be advocating for a sane energy policy. Among its legislative priorities for the 108th Congress, “Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict,” FCNL will work to “remove dependence on oil as a source of violent conflict, injustice, and environmental degradation by reducing U.S. energy consumption and encouraging the development of renewable sources of energy and alternative modes of transportation.”

Quaker Eco-Witness (a project of Friends Committee on Unity with Nature) had been working for years to raise this priority and has led the way with a significant financial contribution to FCNL to enable this work.

Friends can join other faith-based efforts in the Interfaith Climate Change Network (ICCN). An initiative of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the ICCN ( coordinates interfaith lobbying activities on climate and energy. The Partnership’s current goals for energy legislation are:

  • to raise vehicle fuel economy across the board in the shortest feasible timeframe, and to require SUVs and minivans to meet the same standards as passenger cars.
  • to support the development of hybrid-electric, fuel cell, and other promising clean technologies, and to provide incentives to help individual consumers purchase them.
  • to increase funding for inter-city rail and metropolitan mass transit.
  • to invest more resources in renewable energy research and development with a focus on wind, geothermal, solar, and biomass technologies.
  • to apply the strictest feasible energy efficiency standards to consumer products, including air conditioners.
  • to increase funds for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program and other programs to alleviate economic hardship on low-income people.

Education and Efficiency: Several monthly and yearly meetings are working to educate members about the consequences of fossil fuel use and how our dependence on coal and oil has led us to live in ways that are contrary to Quaker values—much as John Woolman expressed concern for the souls of slave owners. In recent years, many meetings have approved minutes on energy use, climate change, and sustainability. Many of these have been published in BeFriending Creation, the newsletter of Friends Committee on Unity with Nature, and disseminated via the Internet.

Some meetings are conducting energy-use surveys and energy audits of meeting facilities to raise awareness of energy usage and to change wasteful practices. One, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association followed up on a successful energy survey with an effort to encourage Friends’ households to change to energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Other meetings that are planning new buildings (or renovations to old) are incorporating energy efficiency into the designs.

Energy Mindfulness

The spiritual practice of simplicity requires an awareness of the amount of energy used to support our lifestyles. Every purchase decision—at the market, at the ignition key, at the light switch—has an energy component. Some are obvious, others are subtle. Here are some suggestions:

  • Reduce transportation energy by walking, cycling, and using public transit; if you must drive, choose the most efficient vehicle for your needs and keep it well-tuned; use public surface transportation for long distance.
  • Reduce home energy requirements by dressing warmer in winter and relying on shade, breezes, and ceiling fans in the summer; weatherproofing the house; lowering the hot water temperature; and installing efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs.
  • Reduce the energy costs of our daily bread by eating mostly locally grown, organic, vegetarian food.
  • Reduce other energy use by limiting consumption of goods and services, especially disposable items. Consider the energy costs of consumer goods production and transportation, water usage, trash disposal, etc.

More information on energy conservation through simpler living is available from Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (

Kim Carlyle and Sandra Lewis

Kim Carlyle, a member of Swannanoa Valley (N.C.) Meeting, is active with Quaker Eco-Witness and is clerk of Friends Committee on Unity with Nature. Sandra Lewis, a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif., is active with an eco-spirituality affinity group there. She also serves on the editorial committee of Quaker Eco-Bulletin and as a volunteer at EarthLight Magazine. Earlier versions of this article appeared in Quaker Eco-Bulletin (an insert in BeFriending Creation), March/April 2002, and in Earth-Light, Spring 2002 (