Imagine you’re an alien looking down at Earth. From space, you see the usual marks of human activity: the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids and “The Apprentice” contestant Rod Blagojevich’s hair.

But then you see something else: an explosion in the ocean. You notice a huge slick of oil fed by a leak that is spilling 210,000 gallons every day, according to the Associated Press. Like ants trying to stop a flood, you see the natives in fishing boats making futile attempts to keep the spill from spreading. You notice others trying to plug a leak almost a mile under the water’s surface, and failing. And then, on shore, you see billions of people consuming oil like addicted teenagers consume alcohol, oblivious to the harm it’s causing, yet unable to stop. You’d think humans were idiots.

And you’d be right — we’re clearly being foolish. The whole oil spill fiasco has been a catastrophic combination of failures. There was the mechanical failure that started the whole thing and caused the deaths of 11 workers. There’s the continuing failure of BP and the federal government to shut the gushing well down. But these technological failures are really just symptoms of a more dire problem: our addiction to oil.

We need to take a moment, as a nation, to look at ourselves in the mirror. We have a problem. In so many ways, our oil habit looks extraordinarily like a drug addiction, and it’s slowly robbing us of the great person we used to be. We’ve gained some weight. Our behavior’s been sporadic. Some of our friends are avoiding us, and our eyes look bloodshot. We go to parties, but nobody wants to dance with us.

Well, maybe that last bit’s just me.

Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels is slowly poisoning our climate beyond recognition. Even with no major spills, hundreds of millions of gallons of oil each year, much of it runoff from roads and spills from routine maintenance, find their way to the oceans, causing environmental damage. We get much of our oil from countries that are openly hostile toward us. We’re willing to drill tens of thousands of feet into the rock beneath an ocean to have our precious oil.

The lesson, for us and our government, is simple: the oil addiction must end.

On Wednesday, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) unveiled the energy and climate bill they’d been negotiating and amending for the last eight months. In it are plans to reduce the national reliance on foreign oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions 83 percent by 2050. For our country, this is rehab. Still, many are saying that the bill has little chance of passing within the year.

While America is resisting rehab, China, the kid America picked on in middle school, is showing us up. A photo essay in the May/June issue of MIT Technology Review reported that last year China’s investment in clean(ish) energy surpassed that of America’s for the first time ever, as the country spent $34.6 billion to clean up its air. China is also building 22 new nuclear reactors with a combined power output of 23 gigawatts, or the equivalent of the power supplied by about 7,600 of the largest wind turbines on a very windy day. The country has just completed the first offshore wind farm to be built outside of Europe, and it’s adding considerably to its use of hydropower. China boasts the world’s largest manufacturer of crystalline silicon photovoltaic solar cells and it’s kicking our butt in developing a clean energy economy. America is being left inebriated in the corner as the world advances around us.

But I don’t want America to be that kid who everyone thought was gifted in middle school but hung out with the wrong crowd and blew everything on drugs. We have great minds and resources, as evidenced by our own University. With a strong but wisely set cap and trade policy, the government can make the price of carbon more accurately reflect the toll fossil fuels exact from society. We can end our addiction and take back our technological superiority. America can be the funny, attractive, successful kid it once was, but only if it’s willing to check itself into rehab and give up its addiction. Otherwise, China will very soon be stealing America’s class presidency, its lunch money and probably its girlfriend.

Nicholas Clift is the summer assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at nclift@umich.edu.

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