Ideas and Consequences

This July, for the third straight year, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute co-hosted the Aspen Ideas Festival. What follows are excerpts from this year’s discussions, including Colin Powell on his attempt to avoid war with Iraq, Richard Branson on the dawn of private spaceflight, Thomas Friedman on why the world isn’t really going green, and Bill Clinton on whether he did enough to prevent 9/11.
Richard Branson on spaceflight
The maverick British billionaire discussed his plans for private space tours.

I assumed, having seen the moon landing, that I would be able to go into space in my lifetime. But you know … NASA needed some competition. There needed to be a company that could actually offer people the chance of actually going to space, and so in 1991, we formed the company Virgin Galactic Airways. I like the name …

I then set off around the world to meet every zany, mad scientist I could find who was interested in rockets and space technology … and then finally came across Burt Rutan, who’s a genius … So we agreed to sponsor SpaceShipOne with him, and we watched the three magnificent flights in SpaceShipOne, and then—using that technology—we’re now building SpaceShipTwo, which is twice as big as SpaceShipOne … A year from now … it’ll go on its first test flight, and 18 months from now, you know, myself, my children, and my parents … God willing, will go up …

The initial flights will go about 70 miles into space, so basically you’ll take off, you’ll go up to 60,000 feet, you’ll be attached under the mother ship, you’ll then drop away, you’ll then have the biggest rush of your life … From naught to 3,500 miles an hour in 10 seconds. And then in space you’ll unbuckle, and we’ve got these enormous big windows you’ll be able to float around looking back at the Earth. And Burt has come up with this really unique device, which is basically what he calls his “feathering mechanism” … It comes back into the Earth’s atmosphere like a shuttlecock, which slows it up, so you don’t have the problems that NASA has with its reentry system …

If you’ve got a mother-in-law, we can always sort out, you know, one-way tickets.


Joel Kotkin on suburbia
Kotkin, the author of The City: A Global History, defended the suburbs and argued that America is getting more, rather than less, suburban.

Now, there are many things wrong with suburbs … but we have to understand something: We created the first mass middle class in the history of the world, where people actually owned their own land and owned their own home … If there’s anything basic to the American experience and to American success, it’s been this.

Now, is this coming to an end? Well, I think the process is continuing. In 1920, 20 percent of the population lived in the 30 densest counties in the country; today, about 11 percent do. In the first half of the 2000s, nearly 90 percent of all growth in metropolitan areas took place in the periphery … Despite everything you read in the newspaper about empty-nesters moving back into the city and all the real-estate speculation, the growth has been in the suburbs … and particularly outer-ring suburbs.

Now, why is this happening? I think the biggest reason is again what one historian called the “universal aspiration.” And it’s interesting: The same trends are happening in places like Japan and Western Europe, where there’s great transit systems, where gasoline costs … $6 a gallon. Despite all of [these] things, and even where [there isn’t] much population growth, you continue to have this movement. There is something in the human spirit … that wants to live in some degree of privacy and some space of their own.


Dianne Feinstein on Iraq
The Democratic senator from California discussed why the American mission in Iraq needs to change.

This has been going on now for four and a half years. This isn’t World War II; this is a small country … You look at trying to make a democracy out of a country that has never known democracy, that has only known strongman rule, that has no functioning institutions that are necessary for a democracy … It is essentially still a tribal society. And you see a Shia-led government where most of the ministers don’t report to work, or half of the legislature doesn’t show up, where [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki has been saying, “Yes, we will do, we will do, we will do,” month after month, and nothing happens.

… I think we have to really come to grips with where American national-security interests rest. And in my view, they don’t rest with sustaining a government. They may rest with seeing that Iraq is not a safe harbor for terrorists. They may rest with seeing the same thing doesn’t happen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They certainly do rest with seeing a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. And they certainly do rest … with the restoration of American credibility abroad. I have never known a time in my lifetime of traveling abroad when Americans are as hated as they are today.

… So where am I going with this? … I believe there is a bellwether that is going to change this fall. Whether it is before [General David] Petraeus reports or after Petraeus reports, I don’t know. But the patience has worn thin. And the cost is so great. And, you know, back in Washington, I think it is once a week, they run the photographs of the American men and women killed in action. And you look at these faces, and they are all so young. And at some point you say, “Enough is enough.”


Thomas Friedman on the cost of going green
The New York Times columnist argued that the world needs to “get real” about what it will take to combat climate change.

I am not a skeptic about global warming. It’s happening. I am a total skeptic that we are really doing anything about it. I think we are in the middle of a huge green bubble … You’ll pardon me when I hear people say, “We’re in the midst of a green revolution.” Oh, green revolution.

Did you ever study a revolution in history? You ever seen a revolution in history where nobody got hurt? That’s the green revolution. In the green revolution, nobody gets hurt—we’re all winners … Exxon’s green. They give $100 million to Stanford … Dick Cheney’s green. He’s for alternative fuels, yeah. He’s for liquefied coal. Dick Cheney’s green. We are all green now. Welcome to the green revolution, where nobody gets hurt.

… This isn’t the green revolution, friends. This is a party … Twenty years ago—15 years ago—we all talked here about the [information technology] revolution. Do you think that was pain-free? … Oh, everyone wasn’t a winner in the IT revolution. There are a lot of old-legacy industries that didn’t get it. And they got steamrolled. And ladies and gentlemen, today the old-legacy industries, they control this story; they control that policy mechanism in Washington. They are tough, and they will fight dirty. They are not going anywhere.

And that’s why we are having a green party, not a green revolution. Do not kid yourself for one second.

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