The good news from the presidential campaign is that even though Senator McCain and Governor Palin have resorted to swift-boat tactics, the fundamental issue of economic well-being has begun to dominate the race for the White House. In the past, that would be bad news for environmental protection and sustainable development, as we’d be hearing we can either have either economic growth or environmental protection. Fortunately, Senator Obama is connecting economic well-being with energy efficiency and renewability, and he often links science and technology, education and health care with the growth of our economy. While Senator McCain is not articulating as comprehensive a case for sustainability, he clearly understands the need for a focus on renewable energy and basic research and development. Perhaps we have finally entered the post environmental politics of sustainable development.
In McCain’s case, a relatively sophisticated energy policy is masked by the absurd and almost obscene mantra of “drill baby drill”. For both candidates, the support of nuclear power represents attraction to a strategy that is simply infeasible in the United States. Unless they plan to build nuclear power plants on military bases, local communities in this country will always use their veto to defeat power-plant sitting. Not in my backyard (NIMBY) is not just a cute phrase around here – it is political reality. I guess it sounds muscular and “no-nonsense” to support nuclear power, but every minute we spend promoting nuclear power in this country is a minute wasted. If you don’t believe me, go to the North Shore of Long Island and visit what remains of the Shoreham Nuclear Power plant. Built at a cost of $6 billion in 1989, it has never generated any commercial power, and cost almost $200 million to decommission. People in Long Island are still paying the costs of that “power plant to nowhere.”
Nuclear power is too centralized, too capital intensive and too politically contentious to be a serious contributor to our energy needs here in the United States. I rarely waste much effort in making these points because I think the forces of economic and political gravity will bring nuclear power down – it really doesn’t need my help. I know nuclear proponents say that before people are forced to sit in the dark they will turn to nuclear power. Fortunately for all of us that won’t be necessary. Our country wastes so much energy that we can meet much of our increased needs with enhanced energy efficiency. Coupled with the development of renewable energy, we should be able to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, without needing nuclear power.
The economic crash around us is scary and will cause great pain, but it may also represent an opportunity to put our economy on a more sustainable footing. In the second presidential debate October 7th, Senator Obama recalled John Kennedy’s national goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s. He then seemed to call for a similar “stretch goal” for renewable energy. He and Senator McCain both explicitly connected renewable energy and energy efficiency to renewed economic growth and green jobs. Obama cited the case of computers and the Internet as mass consumer items that developed as a result of government-funded basic research. Both candidates articulated the basic formula that we need to replicate: Government-funded basic science and engineering research, leading to new technology that is then transferred to the private sector. The private sector takes that new technology and develops the consumer goods that lead to new products and economic growth.
As we struggle to untangle our economy from the financial mess that envelopes us, it‘s a good idea to return to the basics of wealth generation. The type of creativity that drives a modern, post-industrial economy requires careful use of resources and the application of new technology to meet human needs. When we invent new technologies that help people in their daily lives, we often improve quality of life and create wealth. It is clear that reducing the cost and environmental impact of the energy we use is an urgent priority. A technical breakthrough on renewable energy could have the same impact that we saw with the light bulb, the automobile, refrigeration, the computer or the Internet. It may be wishful thinking, but the other night during the second debate I got the clear impression that both of our presidential candidates get it. If only we hadn’t wasted the past eight years….