Warming up to a green revolution

Action speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 13, 2009

moon main

President Obama's push for a green revolution has inevitably drawn comparisons to President Kennedy's famous call, 48 years ago, for a moon landing.

But can the prez get Americans as excited about wind turbines and proper tire inflation as we were, a half-century ago, about a trip to the big ball of cheese in the sky?

That is the central question as Action Speaks!, the series sponsored by Providence arts venue AS220, wraps up its spring season. Panelists for "1961: JFK Calls For the Moon!," scheduled for May 20 at 5:30 pm, include Martin J. Collins, a curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; Kristen Haring, an assistant professor of history at Auburn University who focuses on issues of technology and culture; Paul Di Filippo, a Providence-based science fiction writer; and Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress think tank, who works on environmental and economic issues.

We threw a few questions at Collins. His answers are edited and condensed for length.

CAN PRESIDENT OBAMA'S PUSH FOR A GREEN REVOLUTION HAVE THE SAME GALVANIZING EFFECT AS PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S CALL FOR A MOON LANDING? The times are different, as are the problems. To ask the question in this way, though, is to point to something important in our culture: In the years since the early 1970s, whenever we are confronted with a large, complex challenge such as addressing global warming or finding a cure for cancer we tend to look back at President Kennedy's call and the successful Moon missions. The saying goes, "If we can land humans on the Moon and return them safely to Earth, why can't [we] do X or Y." This monumental undertaking, though, was the product of a very specific time, in which the Cold War with the Soviet Union and their military and space achievements dominated our national attention and Washington politics. President Obama may be able to create a broad and vigorous national conversation around green issues, but it will have a different character. The early Space Race was built around a sequence of spectacular events — the first satellite, the first human in space — that pushed public and political dialogue. Green politics, I think, is different and is more about a gradual, cultural reorientation that encourages average citizens to ask questions about how they live their daily lives.

THE SOVIET LAUNCH OF THE SPUTNIK SATELLITE PUT FEAR IN THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC AND AMERICAN POLICYMAKERS, SPURRING INNOVATION. CAN A THREAT AS ABSTRACT AS GLOBAL WARMING DO THE SAME? It is important to remember that the shock of Sputnik was twofold. One was the historic, awe-inspiring, first-time accomplishment of a human-made object leaving the Earth and orbiting the planet. The other was what Sputnik symbolized in the Cold War: that the Soviets could place a nuclear weapon on a guided missile, launch it, and hit the US 30 minutes later with devastating consequences. The threat was specific and possibly a tick-of-the-clock away. Government, rather than individual citizens, was best able to respond to this situation.

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