I'm careful about the word crisis. Like hero it gets overused. And when politicians deploy the word, watch out because you don't know if it means one of their earmarks got nicked or they're actually worried about something real. I don't, however, have any trouble when crisis is applied to our energy situation. What we're doing with energy – what we've been relentlessly, myopically doing after being warned and warned about the consequences – is exacerbating a climate change already well under way by refusing to acknowledge that this is a crisis. Not a Priority #6, we-should-maybe-get-around-to-that-tomorrow-or-day-after-tomorrow kind of crisis. A right-now crisis. We have to stop dinking around.
We should treat our energy crisis like World War II.
I'm not fond of the label "Greatest Generation" that Tom Brokaw implanted irrevocably into our brains. It's the sort of phraseology that contributes to generational warfare, and we already have enough divisions. But who can disrespect the sacrifices so many people of that era made? After surviving the Depression, they rationed sugar and gasoline and rubber, built tanks instead of Buicks, and went off to fight against the armies of nations who, for one of the few times in our history, had made war impossible to avoid.
When I say tanks, I mean massive numbers of tanks. Huge numbers of airplanes and ships and jeeps and locomotives and guns. Munitions and uniforms and bullets and bombs and bandages and all manner of everything needed to defeat determined enemies and simultaneously keep the home front fed and hopeful. Factories running three shifts even when that required hiring women, which it did, in vast quantities. Victory gardens. Gold star moms. Everything for the war effort.
In today's dollars, $4.5 trillion borrowed and spent.
That's the kind of focus and commitment we need now. For energy, the presidential model should not be, as many progressives have urged on other issues, the New Deal FDR of 1933-36. Rather, it should be the wartime FDR of 1940-45. That war generated the largest public mobilization of human resources in our history.
Now, of course, Barack Obama isn't FDR. And this isn't 1941. Americans and America have changed a good deal in seven decades. We today are nearly as far from them as they were in their time from the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. But surely we do not lack their determination. Surely we are not slackers when it comes to dealing with what we want this planet to look like by the time our children and grandchildren have attained the age we are now. Surely, like those women and men of the 1940s, we are willing to sacrifice, make alterations in our daily habits, develop new ways of making things and new attitudes about consuming things.
After all, hundreds of thousands of their generation were killed and millions lost family members when they confronted their crisis. That's not on our plate. Not, that is, if we do confront the crisis head-on instead of pretending some tweaking will resolve it. Of necessity, their mission was to build the machinery of destruction. What rolled out their factory doors and boot camps was meant to carry out slaughter. Our mission is far different.
President Obama is perfectly suited for the bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt named the megaphone that being in the White House conferred on him. Obama has not yet used the bully pulpit on energy, not really.
One frosty Sunday in December, the other Roosevelt found himself without a choice. Courtesy of Admiral Yamamoto, World War II had arrived on America's doorstep via Pearl Harbor. In fact, FDR had known long before that day there was no easy, peaceful way out. Treading close to the line of legality, perhaps even over it on occasion, he had prepared Americans for a war the majority of them wanted the U.S. to have no part of. So when the attack came, we were far more ready than we would have been without his vision.
The situation today doesn't look so stark to most people. The accident that produced the Gulf gusher was no Pearl Harbor. It killed far fewer people. And even though the subsequent assault on the environment may wreck the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and extinguish a couple of species before its ravages are complete, its psychological impact after six weeks is minuscule compared with what those zeros and dive bombers did in just two hours all those decades ago.
Even though the gusher provides a great teaching moment, a transitional moment, a clear-cut reminder of what staying on our current path means, to many it's just a one-off. So it would be easy to soft-pedal the urgency. The President could just continue along the lines of his speech last week in Pittsburgh.
However, we've been taking the easier path since Jimmy Carter left the Presidency. We and our leaders have been whistling in the dark while the crisis grew and our Cassandras were ridiculed, vilified and ignored. Our fossil-fuel energy consumption has gushed pollution into the atmosphere ten thousand times worse than BP's rogue well has gushed oil into the waters of the Gulf. Year after year after year, most of it invisible except to the scientists' instruments. Concealing its consequences has been the lying propaganda of profiteers and the la-la-la-la-we-can't-hear-you of far too many of us.
I am pretty sure President Obama knows the depth and dangers of our crisis. But he has yet to truly convey that to the American people. He's taken a rather different approach, as my colleague Laurence Lewis pointed out earlier. He should cut himself loose from the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach of his predecessors since Carter. He should commit our nation to a new and inevitably bumpy course of truly clean energy. That not only means wrestling with a superpowerful political opposition, it also means doing so in the face of a juggernaut of broadcast media filled with hate-jockeys so dangerously vile they should dress in uniforms and armbands.
The message – it's a message that perfectly suits the preferred approach of our President – should be that this is a crisis and we must all pull together to overcome it. The message should be that each of us has a role in taking ourselves off the fossil-fuel needle that's poisoning our eco-system and addicting us as thoroughly as the lung-cancer victim who still smokes cigarettes between puffs from the oxygen mask.
The message should be that we must commit ourselves as a nation to conservation and efficiency, to be as determined to curtail our waste of energy as we are eager to expand our supply of it. That we set goals and benchmarks on the way to those goals for how much power we generate from renewables. Ditto how quickly we cut back atmospheric emissions.
The message should be that we need to invest vast sums of public and private money in upgrading and reworking our transportation and electrical transmission system. That we need to build renewable-energy machines the way we made tanks and ships 70 years ago, fast and furious, and on borrowed money if we must.
There's sugar in the message besides just ending our assault on the environment. Clean energy will create hundreds of thousands of jobs without the risk of disasters like the one we are witnessing now or the one that put 29 miners into the grave in West Virginia a few months ago.
Most important of all, the message should be – must be – that we can't keep putting off the commitment until some more convenient day.
Such a message from the President won't be too convincing in the chambers of a half-hostile Congress in which half the remainder are, shall we say, soft on soft energy. So he'll have to convince the American people to convince Congress. That's what the great platform of the bully pulpit is for. Not a single speech, not an off-the-cuff remark here and there, but a viral version of the message over and over again. Until it sinks in. For those matters on which Congress – sucking at the teat of Big Oil – still cannot be convinced, the President should do what he can with executive orders – public, transparent ones, of course – and innovative reworkings of the focus and operations of executive agencies.
Treating the energy crisis as if it were World War II does not mean pushing a particular piece of legislation, though, of course, legislation will ultimately be required. Nor about building one particular kind of new technology. It means changing our mindset about, and our relationship to, energy and the side-effects engendered by our consumption of great quantities of it. Transformation. The fact that some very powerful, ruthless people stand in the way is nothing new.
Thirty-two years ago working in the still-rented laboratories and offices of the Solar Energy Research Institute, a part of the Department of Energy now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, our team was excited. Whatever our specific jobs – and mine was not scientific – we were eager. A President had taken up the challenge of the energy crisis and we were going to be on the cutting edge of a new approach. Climate change was not on our minds. But the idea of taking out the oil-and-coal needle by creating clean energy from sun and wind and teaching people how to reduce their energy demand without making them Amish was our welcome task.
Ronald Reagan ripped most of the petals off that dream. His three successors, two of them oil men, offered anemic, inconsistent policy, inadequate funding and zero interest in getting Congress to change direction. Until the seventh year of George Bush's administration, the federal government spent fewer inflation-adjusted dollars annually on renewables research than Carter had in his final budget. Nearly three decades wasted. Not that advances weren't made in spite of the government's stingy efforts and the majority of the population's indifference. But, whatever progress has been achieved, so much more could have been done, enough perhaps that our current crisis might not even be one.
President Obama has done more and talked more about establishing a reasonable energy policy than any President since Carter. But, to the dismay of many, he has placed "clean coal" and off-shore oil and nuclear power ahead of renewables. Persuading him to drop one or more of the first three should surely be part of progressives' efforts. In the short run, however, it's far more important he be persuaded to more deeply embrace renewables and conservation policies that ultimately will make those other energy sources redundant.
One way or another, the energy crisis is going to transform us as much as World War II transformed us. The question is whether the President will seize the day or it will seize us.