Prioritizing Sustainability

Last Thursday night, during the U.S. presidential debate, Barack Obama took an unprecedented leadership position on the crucial environmental issue of energy.

The candidates were asked what their presidential priorities would be given the "new economic realities". Presenting priorities in a presidential debate is a risky move, because the issues lowest on the list will be important to someone. Ranking an issue low on the priority list leaves a candidate open to attacks that they don't care about poverty, or trade, or foreign relations or whatever issue is ranked last.

Considering this political challenge, and in the tradition of blind American optimism, John McCain confusingly argued his first priority would be "all three." Rejecting the logic that led to McCain suspending his campaign to focus on economic problems, he instead accepted Obama's argument that "a president must be able to do more than one thing at once," by arguing "we can do them all at once. There's no -- and we have to do them all at once." Is this possible? Is this what positive thinking means? Or, in his quest to please everyone, did McCain succumb to what Barbara Ehrenreich calls "delusional optimism"?

In stark contrast, Obama answered the question. Comparing the nation to a family with economic shortages, Obama claimed that as a nation, "We're going to have to prioritize, just like a family has to prioritize." He argued that we must deal with energy "today." Obama reiterated his call for "an investment of $15 billion a year over 10 years. Our goal should be, in 10 year's time, we are free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil." Combining the issues of energy independence and security, twenty years after Amory Lovins did, Obama claimed that generating our own energy would not only be an environmental boon, but also free us from reliance on dangerous petro-regimes in Iran, Venezuela, and Russia.

Obama made a comparison between the project of energy independence today and the Apollo project of landing on the moon. He said, "when JFK said we're going to the Moon in 10 years, nobody was sure how to do it, but we understood that, if the American people make a decision to do something, it gets done."

Obama's comparison might have been first made by the Apollo Alliance, a non-profit project at the local, state and national levels to create an American green revolution. According to their website, the Apollo project was "launched in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy to catalyze... a revolution in the way our country generates and uses energy so profound that it will touch literally every quarter of American life. Harkening back to President Kennedy's visionary call to meet the challenge of the Sputnik launch with an aggressive national commitment to landing the first man on the Moon within the decade, the Apollo Alliance spoke directly to the core values we share as Americans: our can-do spirit, our inherent optimism, and the pride we feel (or want to feel) about our country's place in the world." While Obama hasn't officially endorsed the Apollo Alliance, his adoption of their rhetoric is a specific reference to a concrete historical instance of American ingenuity.

This reference demonstrates Obama's conception of how technical advance can follow from political will. While Obama suggests that no one knows how we will achieve this goal, he ignores important thinkers and writers like Lester Brown and Amory Lovins with specific descriptions of how to achieve energy independence (while radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions) using existing technology. The crucial point to remember here is that sustainable living doesn't require a miracle technology or a silver bullet.

Sustainable living is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet.

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  • Posted on Oct. 13, 2008. Listed in:

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