President Obama has started his re-election campaign, hoping to remind voters that in spite of four years of broken promises and disappointing compromises, he’s still dedicated to what got him elected in the first place: making really good campaign speeches.
One phrase you’re going to be hearing a lot is “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This little catchphrase refers to his stance that, unlike his opponents who want to ransack the environment in search of cheap oil, he wants to ransack the environment in search of cheap oil and do other things as well.
I’m pretty blasé about the whole cabaret show, myself. I’m in favour of throwing alternative energy whatever scraps we can wheedle out of Washington, but clearly we’re not going to make any major advances in cheap, clean power until oil is so scarce that commuters are reduced to sucking on pieces of shale in hopes of extracting a drop of petroleum to spit into their gas tanks.
Here’s a little story for you. Once upon a time, one of the greatest threats to the lives of American children was the common household refrigerator. This was because refrigerators closed with big honking latches that couldn’t be unlatched from the inside. Kids, being creatures with underdeveloped brains as a rule, climbed inside them to pretend to be glazed hams or something, and they couldn’t get out and suffocated.
So people got upset about this, as Americans are wont to do when children die and are American, and the refrigerator manufacturers quickly formed a commission dedicated to informing consumers that a commission had been formed. They did not redesign the refrigerators. They resisted any government attempts to force them to redesign the refrigerators. They used a set of excuses that are so standard they should be sold on Amazon as the Corporate Excuses Starter Kit.
• The problem is not really a problem.
• To the extent that the problem is a problem, the problem is not our problem.
• You know who we blame? The victims. If they weren’t so dumb, they wouldn’t have been victimized.
• The problem cannot be solved.
• To the extent that the problem can be solved, it can’t be solved by us.
• To the extent the problem can be solved by us, it can’t be solved by us without destroying the United States economy and plunging us into a despotic nightmare of government mandates and low-quality products.
While Big Refrigerator was a powerful lobby, it was nowhere near as powerful as Big Oil is today, so these excuses were seen as a pathetic attempt to maintain the status quo, rather than a wise pronouncement from those able to see past the greed and power-lust of a monolithic conspiracy of, um, research scientists, and the Refrigerator Safety Act was passed.
Fridge makers were required to do what they claimed was impossible: create a refrigerator that does not kill children.
They put their best minds to the task, because they had to, and came up with an incredible invention called a “magnet.” Turns out if you line the doors with magnets, then the door stays closed and dumb little kids can get out if they need to. Go fig.
By the way, no child in the U.S. has died from suffocating in a fridge designed after the Refrigerator Safety Act was passed. Not bad for impossible.
The point of this little parable is that we tend to see this as the best of all possible worlds, technologically-speaking. We accept that solar power and wind power are nice, but not enough to actually sustain a civilisation. We accept that atomic power is always going to be toxic and disastrous. We accept that electric cars are for yuppie douchebags and public transit is for poor smelly people. We read science fiction and dream of a nicer future, while accepting that our current alternate-energy tech is as cutting edge as it could possibly be because we’re Americans and we invented Google and the iPad and microwave popcorn so if there was something better than oil we would have created it already, right?
Don’t believe it. There’s much more to be done, and we’re not going to do much of it until alternative energy stops being a Mr. Wizard sideshow rarely seen outside of car expos and the covers of tech magazines, and starts being the only way to drag our kids to the soccer field. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.
Born helpless, naked and unable to provide for himself, Lore Sjöberg overcame these handicaps to become a doomsayer, a naysayer, and an assayer.
Image via io9