Ideas: Energy & Environment July/August 2009

The Elusive Green Economy

It feels like 1977 all over again: economy in the doldrums, crisis in the Middle East, and a charismatic new Democrat in the White House preaching the gospel of clean energy. Can Obama succeed where Carter did not? Yes—but only if we’ve learned the lessons of three decades of failure.

Image: Morton Beebe/Corbis Better Luck This Time

In October 1977, this magazine ran a cover story on the promising field of renewable energy. From today’s vantage point, the article is noteworthy mainly for how uncannily its description of the country’s energy crisis and possible solutions applies to the crisis we’re in now.

The article took as its starting point the national debate that had arisen over a 29-year-old physicist named Amory Lovins, who had come to prominence a year earlier, when he published an essay in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” Lovins argued that the country had arrived at an important crossroads and could take one of two paths. The first, supported by U.S. policy at the time, promised a future of steadily increasing reliance on dirty fossil fuels and nuclear fission, and it carried serious environmental risks. At a time before Al Gore was even in Congress, Lovins noted: “The commitment to a long-term coal economy many times the scale of today’s makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate.” He dubbed this “the hard path.”

The alternative, which Lovins called “the soft path,” favored “benign” sources of renewable power like wind and the sun, along with a heightened commitment to meeting energy demands through conservation and efficiency. Such a heterodox blend of clean technologies, Lovins argued, would bring a host of salutary effects: a healthier environment, an end to our dependence on Middle East oil, a diminished likelihood of future wars over energy, and the foundation of a vibrant new economy.

The Atlantic cover story went on to examine emerging technologies, like solar energy, that lay at the heart of Lovins’s vision. While refraining from outright prediction, the author’s hopes were clear. In 1977, the country appeared poised on the brink of a new age, with recent events having organized themselves in such a way as to make a clean-energy future seem tantalizingly close at hand. A charismatic Democrat had come from nowhere to win the White House. Reacting to an oil shock and determined to rid the country of Middle East entanglements, he was touting the merits of renewable energy and, for the first time, putting real money into it— $368 million.

But things peaked soon afterward, when Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. “A generation from now,” Carter declared, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken—or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

Now we have our answer: museum piece. In one of the great acts of humiliating political symbolism, Ronald Reagan tore down the solar panels, which spent many years in purgatory before eventually finding their way to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, where they sit on display in silent reproach to all who drive Hummers and own high-wattage plasma television sets.

But having mostly followed the hard path since 1977, the world has started to register the dire climatic effects Lovins warned of. The concentration of atmospheric carbon, an important indicator of global warming, has shot from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 386 ppm last year and appears to be accelerating. Most scientists agree that beyond some critical threshold, climate change is irreversible and probably catastrophic. But no one knows just where the threshold lies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change takes 450 ppm as the benchmark, a level we’re on pace to reach by mid-century—although the prognosis is grimmer than that would imply. Because the effects of atmospheric carbon take years to show up as higher temperatures, limiting concentration to 450 ppm requires halting emissions at current levels. This sudden imperative, coupled with the unlikelihood of action absent a major government intervention, has thrust national energy policy to the forefront of public debate for the first time since Lovins’s heyday.

At least on a rhetorical level, a good portion of the country now seems eager to commit to the soft path. It probably helps that the last administration was synonymous with oil and coal. But last summer’s spike in oil prices gave a nudge even to some who harbored Cheney-esque views of renewable energy. The recent changes in Washington have made a significant shift in the nation’s energy policy a real possibility for the first time in years.

As before, a new Democratic president is touting clean energy, not only as the path to the future but as the key to economic revival. “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change,” President Obama told Congress in February, “we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.” Like Carter, he’s putting federal money into the effort, but in an amount several orders of magnitude greater. The stimulus alone dumped $167 billion in grants and loan guarantees for clean-energy and other projects onto the Department of Energy, dwarfing its $27 billion annual budget to such a degree that its inspector general frantically warned that the department could buckle under the strain. There’s even talk of refitting the White House with solar panels. In all sorts of ways, it feels like 1977 again.

Shortly after the inauguration, a friend up for several jobs in the new administration confessed that he yearned to wind up at the Department of Energy. “It’s like NASA in the ’60s,” he told me. “All the best and brightest want to be there.” Obama’s choice of Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist, as secretary of energy only heightened the allure. In the early Obama era, romantic notions about making one’s mark on history tend to take the form of helping recast America’s economy, and by extension the world’s, in a way that will head off global catastrophe. So we’re back at the old crossroads, only with less time and more urgency to act.

Most talk of the climate problem takes place at the abstract level of a Davos panel—all global diagnoses and moral imperatives. The gritty practicalities of addressing it tend to get obscured. But any effort to engineer change on such a grand scale will be an unprecedented feat of business and government, and the spotty results of earlier attempts might give pause were they better known. Given how large our energy policy looms today, what has happened over the 32 years since The Atlantic first raised the issue of clean energy still draws surprisingly little notice.

On one level, this is understandable. Talking about conservation and energy efficiency in the context of the 1970s summons up images of monkish self-denial, a lifestyle of bulky sweaters and humiliatingly small foreign cars that’s a lousy advertisement for the world of tomorrow. It’s important to look back, though: Carter’s efforts failed because of the way the government encouraged clean energy, not because it tried. And the effects of decisions he made could be felt as recently as last fall. The NASA -in-the-’60s analogy would be more apt had the moon landing followed several decades of misfires and crashes.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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