In 1977 President Jimmy Carter declared the energy crisis the "'moral equivalent of war'--except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy."
This seems a plausible outlook given the sheer scale of the task of moving beyond fossil fuels, and the broader ecological crisis more generally. Yet this challenge has consistently failed to draw forth such an intensity of response--or anything close to it--among either the public, or its "leaders." Hurricane Katrina, which left some eight thousand dead and missing, evoked no analogies with Pearl Harbor in the press--and nor did the more recent Hurricane Sandy.
One does not have to search very far to find explanations for the gap between such rhetoric, and what actually followed it. There is, for instance, the character of the problem, a process apprehended only with the capacity to connect numerous manifestations with a vast, complex process unfolding over decades and centuries, and doing so largely outside the view of the comfortable--such that there is room for doubt about its even existing at all. As the bombs fell on London during the Blitz, no one doubted that Britain was at war. But watching hurricanes careen like pinballs about the Gulf of Mexico, or ravage Manhattan twice in as many years, some still find it possible to dismiss such events as "weather" rather than evidence of climate change.
There is also something about a struggle with a human opponent, however simplistically given a human face and conceived as "evil" and made a socially sanctioned target for aggressive and hateful feelings that engages the passions in a way that other, more impersonal problems do not, least of all our environmental problems, which are far too complex to be convincingly presented as a simple tale of heroes and villains.1
And of course, the familiar reward of an epic battle against such a villain is absent. In modern times wars have been fought with the promise of a better life afterward--a world safe for democracy; a country fit for heroes; broad, sunlit uplands. (Even the "New World Order" of which Bush the First spoke after Cold War and Gulf War, while hardly on a level with the soaring rhetoric which gave the world the phrases listed above, reflected the tendency.) The "and then what?" of grappling with our environmental problems is far less clear than any of these. "Sustainability" may be the only sane principle for our relationship to the environment, but it leaves much to be desired as inspiration.2 And what some hold sustainability to require, learning to live on less, is certainly uninspiring, especially to the vast majority who have never had very much. One might in fact say that environmentalism has lacked a sense of the utopian (in that term's best sense).
And of course, there is the sheer "inconvenience" of the truth, meeting an ecological challenge less than congenial to innumerable vested interests. It is certainly the case that there are plenty of opportunities to make money in the course of rebuilding the world's energy base--but old, established, powerful parties would see accustomed activities changed or curtailed, and the short-term profits on which they focus to the exclusion of nearly all else threatened.
At any rate, such a response to the problem is a challenge to the premises of business in general given the implicit subordination of the forms of growth business values (of firms, of incomes, of markets), and the autonomy and prestige it enjoys now as in few other eras, to other goods and imperatives. It is worth remembering, too, that growth has long been a solvent for social tensions, one which has not been perfectly satisfactory but nonetheless effective to a considerable degree (even as it has become increasingly illusory), and that even the prospect of the disappearance, or even diminution, of that solvent can only raise fears about seeing those tensions intensify.
Naturally there is not only resistance to acceptance of the problem's existence, but active effort on the part of powerful groups to obfuscate it, to minimize it, to trivialize it--something all the easier to do given the issue's ambiguities. And so in the end we have wound up in a position where there is widespread anxiety about the prevailing state of affairs, but the expectation of meaningful action on the problem all too often seems like wishful thinking.
1. Of course, that is not to deny the culpability of vested interests and the responsibility of numerous personally powerful individuals in causing avoidable damage and thwarting efforts to solve the problem. As C. Wright Mills observed, the idea that "we all possess equal powers to make history . . . is sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility." Yet the problem deeply involves a whole way of thinking about the world, and a whole system for dealing with it, far bigger than any one individual.
2. Economist Herman Daly defined sustainable use as one's not consuming a resource at a greater rate than that that at which it might be renewed (in the case of renewables); substitutes found for it, which would themselves be subject to that same consumption standard (in the case of nonrenewables); or "recycled, absorbed or rendered harmless" (in the case of pollutants). See Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), p. 54.