"Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns, but we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” -President Jimmy Carter, 1980
The challenges Carter faced in changing national energy policy parallels the current challenge of transforming 21st century energy economy. The main problem back then was an overdependence on foreign oil. Today, as the consequences of climate change unfold, the world must undertake a radical transition from fossil fuel to carbon-free energy.
While the circumstances during the era of Carter’s administration were remarkably different from those of the present day, the political and economic considerations are similar. Right-wing Republican forces united behind Donald Trump are ever ready to oppose any threat to the status quo.
In the same speech quoted above, Carter stated the need for “an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I’m asking you, for your good and for your nation’s security, to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can … and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense, I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”
Jimmy Carter was an early proponent of renewable energy. He had a solar hot water system installed on the roof of the White House as a symbolic gesture (which was promptly removed after Reagan took office in 1981). Carter believed in solar technology and called on the nation to develop it. His administration increased the budget for energy technology research and development to levels not equaled until Obama’s stimulus bill three decades later. Carter was the first U.S. president to implement tax credits for installing wind turbines and solar power. He also set the goal of deriving 20 percent of U.S. energy needs from renewables by the year 2000 (as of now, we’re at 9.4 percent).
Carter urged people to use less energy, and he warned of the consequences if they failed to change their lifestyle, saying: “I realize that many of you have not believed that we really have an energy problem”.
The inconvenient truth of a climate emergency was already part of the scientific consensus in 1980. Carter’s speech was greatly influenced by a 1972 Club of Rome report that warned of exponential population growth and the potential collapse of civilization as we know it around 2100 due to resource exhaustion.
Unfortunately, under the Reagan administration, the nation went back to living as though resources were infinite. Fossil fuels, steak dinners and rampant consumption once again became the norm. Now, as we face the decade of the 2020s, we need to move back toward Carter’s vision, and fast.