I can only wonder where we'd be if political leaders in both parties had had the vision and courage to act on energy and environmental challenges when they first really pressed us 30 years ago. Instead, they scorned and ridiculed President Carter for seeing and speaking the truth about energy conservation and alternative sources, and about our need to wean ourselves from the petroleum pipelines of the Middle East. And any awareness of, or action on, these issues went down, like Carter, in defeat. If only we could get those years back.
I had a chance to talk about energy issues with President Carter back in 1979 when I was stationed at The White House for more than a month installing a solar water heating system on the West Wing roof. In addition to being a building contractor then, I was also the chairman of the National Association of Solar Contractors. The president used to come up onto the roof to survey our progress and ask us about the solar collectors, and he toured the system with us when we were finished with the installation and testing. Remember, the guy was a former engineer and a submarine commander. He could hardly resist.
You can't say the U.S. didn't have its chance to avoid today's energy crisis. Thirty years ago we had a president who held a deep concern and a clear vision about the need for our country to find a new direction, yet couldn't find enough politicians and corporate leaders with the courage to start the journey. Today we've got both presidential candidates fighting over which one has the solutions, as if they are the enlightened ones. Don't get me wrong. I am somewhat relieved that this has finally become a priority worthy of presidential debates. But look at the forces that have painted these guys into their corners: Record oil prices, unstable petroleum supplies, and worsening environmental health. Sound familiar? It's definitely ironic.
Add gas rationing and long lines at gas stations and we'd be right back where we were in 1979, except for one looming difference: Global warming. Over the past 30 years we've burned enough fossil fuels, added enough carbon and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to warm the planet. The level of urgency is unmistakable, even pushing our current president to utter the dreaded phrase "climate change" for the first time, after scoffing it off for the first six and a half years of his presidency.
In one of his first acts as a new president, Ronald Reagan had the solar system we installed for the Carter administration removed from The White House. And if Carter's move to install it was largely symbolic of a new direction, Reagan's removal was a colossal statement about this country's continued denial of any need to change. And it would be hard to find examples of where any president--of either party--since has helped the situation significantly. Let's hope that whoever wins this next election, John McCain or Barack Obama, gets it right this time. We can't wait another 30 years. -Rick Schwolsky
Rick Schwolsky is Co-Chief Editor for EcoHome.