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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.

Global warming is not that kind of threat, its potential consequences are at some point in the future and might affect different locales in different ways. And a wider circle of actors are able to respond to it: Governments, non-profits, businesses, and individuals, here in the US and in other countries, all can take or encourage a range of actions. Equally important, the global warming issue is indicative of our times, in which the threats that worry us most are associated with systems that are large in scale, extend across national boundaries, and involve complex relations between humans and their environment, natural or social. Global warming, disease pandemics, and (to a degree) terrorism fit this profile. All are hard to understand and control in their entirety and resist "silver bullet" solutions.

DOES TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION STILL HAVE THE SAME HOLD ON THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION AS IT DID DURING THE SPACE RACE WITH THE SOVIETS? HOW HAVE AMERICAN ATTITUDES SHIFTED? If I was pushed to single out one signature legacy of the Cold War years it might be this: That the US government, for the first time, made a firm, substantial, continuing commitment to stimulate developments in science and technology. Through this commitment, Americans came to see such activity as in the public interest and normal. It has had dramatic effect — increasing the number of engineers and scientists, channeling dollars into universities and industry, giving economic life to communities all across the US, making science and mathematics education a priority of primary and secondary schools, and many other far-reaching consequences. The history of Rhode Island and Providence are very much a part of this post-World War II story.

Americans have had a long love affair with innovation and progress. Daniel Boorstin, a well-known historian and a former Librarian of Congress, wrote in 1978 The Republic of Technology, arguing that innovation and the idea of progress were deeply ingrained in the American experience. But in that Cold War period in which he penned this book, Americans were balancing this enthusiasm with a more complex and wary view of technology and its relation to everyday life. One can see this in the important connection between spaceflight and the emerging modern environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The "big" technologies of satellites and human space exploration gave us wondrous images of Earth, a blue marble in darkness of space. Such images helped stimulate the idea that all of us had a responsibility for the health and preservation of the planet and gave powerful meaning to catchphrases such as "act locally, think globally." Today, we like innovation, but we like the possibility of its scrutiny, too. 

Related: Straight talk, Jim nauseam, 20 reasons the Earth will be glad to see Bush go, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, U.S. Government,  More more >
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