Wait a Minute: Actually, the Energy Crisis IS Sort of Like Sputnik!

In a dispatch here, with links back to several previous items, I quoted a reader who said that it was a fundamental conceptual error to compare a national push for clean energy with previous all-out efforts to go to the moon (Apollo Project) or build the atomic bomb (Manhattan Project). The technological challenges were different; the economic pressures and tradeoffs were different; the political realities were different -- and so on, to the extent that, according to several readers, we're better off not even mentioning the comparison.

A reader who blogs at Fabius Maximus writes now to somewhat different effect:

Have you read the Congressional Research Service report "The Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and Federal Energy Technology R&D Programs: A Comparative Analysis", by Deborah D. Stine (30 June 2009)? Esp note the comparisons of their size (funding).

Well, now I have! And I see, for instance, this chart, comparing spending patterns for each of the efforts. The red lines are "constant-dollar" (ie, fair) comparisons among the three, showing the wartime concentration on the Manhattan Project, the somewhat more-sustained and much more expensive investment in the Apollo Project, and the longer-run but lower lever of investment in energy programs, after the bulge of the Carter energy initiatives of the late 1970s:


Fabius Maximus adds:

A few other notes in reply to your article comparing the energy crisis to Sputnik.
(1) Your correspondent misses the key point in this comparison. There was no national consensus on the need for a space program before Sputnik. Peak oil will be a similarly transforming event, whenever it happens (expert forecasts are coming in, with several in the 2015-2020 range).

(2) Here's a comparison, based on the CRS funding data:

* The Manhattan Project was intense (in terms of GDP), small in dollars, and brief. It was an unqualified success

* The Apollo Program was intense, large in dollars, and long. Apollo met its narrow goal, but was a near-total failure in larger terms (producing no space infrastructure or long-term national benefits).

* Energy research (total since 1975) has been a low fraction of GDP per year, but massive in dollars and sustained for almost 2 generations. With few useful results relative to the cost.

We're one for three. Not a happy record. We'll have to do better in the future if we're to prosper -- or even survive.

(3) Manhattan and Apollo were narrowly focused engineering projects, for which the underlying science was already well-developed -- and the potential well-understood. With the possible exception of the Polywell, nothing else fits that description at this time.

I've written several articles about this emerging crisis.

1. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war), 4 May 2008

2. An urban legend to comfort America: crash programs will solve Peak Oil, 16 September 2008

3. A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell, 30 September 2008

4. Could a new "Manhattan Project" produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010
All worth reading.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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