Sputnik? New Frontier? Where Is the Historical Analogy for Green?

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said the U.S. had recently experienced a Sputnik moment in clean energy. That officially marked the 537th Sputnik moment of the last ten years.
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In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said the U.S. had recently experienced a Sputnik moment in clean energy.

That officially marked the 537th Sputnik moment of the last ten years.

Since the dawn of the modern greentech movement in 2001, policymakers, pundits and others have sought to coin the perfect historical analogy to stir Americans to action. A few days after Obama's speech, Energy Secretary Steve Chu and SunPower founder Dick Swanson echoed Kennedy's call to go to the Moon when they unveiled SunShot, an initiative to reduce the cost of solar to $1 a watt.

Unfortunately, it's a lot tougher than it looks. Was the nation cowering in fear for three days about a looming Communist onslaught when the President told us China surpassed us in wind turbines? If anything, it was more of a Laika vs. Ham the Space Chimp sort of moment.

The moon shot analogy doesn't fully work, either. Only twelve Americans ever walked on the moon, it was a spare-no-expense project, and we unceremoniously killed it off in favor of the Space Shuttle, sort of how we scuttled the growing renewable industry in the early '80s. A metaphor like this in our paranoid times could also cause unintended consequences. The first ten results on a Google search yielded six pages that addressed whether the Apollo program was a hoax: thank you, Capricorn One.

The Manhattan Project? Again, an emergency project with an unlimited budget that resulted in two weapons. Plus, we only pulled that one off because Europe's best scientists flocked to America. This time around, many of the world's best and brightest are staying home. And have you ever read the books about the project? The hard liquor and cigarette budget alone would boost the deficit by 2 percent.

Fifty-four Forty or Fight? Too jingoistic.

Still, we need something. Americans love a rallying point, so what should it be?

The closest analogy in my view might be the New Deal. The government essentially opened the pocketbooks on public works projects both as a way to rebuild the country and to put people to work. Over the next ten years, the green market will largely be focused on execution: building large solar power plants, erecting EV charging stations, hoeing biofuel farms and retooling factories. People dressed better then, too, so there are style points.

Unfortunately, 65 years after Roosevelt's death, many people still view the program as the dawn of socialist domination. Weirdly, a lot of the critics live on Social Security, but that's beside the point: it might be too divisive. By the same token, the Big Dig is out.

Rosie the Riveter is another possibility, for all of the same reasons as the New Deal. The war effort also has the advantage of failure. Many of the defense projects kicked off during the war, like the Spruce Goose from Hughes Aircraft, came to naught. Some critics believe that federal and state governments screwed up by, respectively, issuing lots of credit to Solyndra and Evergreen Solar. War is hell: mistakes happen. Entrepreneur/scientist Saul Griffith has likened the effort to World War II.

Alas, there is no Hitler of climate change. Occasionally, deniers like Joe Barton and Michelle Bachmann will make amusing statements, but they don't constitute a dynamic, relentless force needed to galvanize others into action. We have climate problems because we all want to live indoors and bathe. Big business, someday, could stand in as the bad guy, but it might be more than we wished for. Typically, business people like John Rockefeller and Carnegie only became demonized after something really bad, like hiring security guards to shoot employees.

Eisenhower's interstate highway system? It is pretty difficult to imagine Americans rallying from their stupor by remembering how tough it was to find an exit ramp before 1954. There's just no urgency there.

Manifest destiny? Alex Madrigal, now at The Atlantic, proposed that one once. We have the R&D and other tools to turn green energy from a small industry into a worldwide phenomenon. It is ours for the taking. The term, though, comes with a lot of baggage. You can't really see a Democratic president evoking the underlying rationale for attacking Mexico.

The 12th century Renaissance? The Agadir Crisis? Will our strengths as a nation soar like they once did in 1825 with the construction of the Erie Canal?

Sadly, perhaps the most apt analogy might be the one given to me by Richard Smalley, the now-deceased Nobel Prize winner, during an interview in 2004. It combines a somewhat fresh incident with an urge to immediate action that ultimately ends happily. It is also the scariest of the bunch.

"My guess is that this won't become a big issue unless there is a thalidomide event," Smalley said. "We will have to see in the rearview mirror that we are past the peak in worldwide oil production."

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