It didn't have to be this way.
It's true that, at a time when the science of climate change was in its infancy, Carter wouldn't have known about the possibility of an overheating world, and his vision of "alternative energy" wasn't exactly a fossil-fuel-free one. Even then, shades of today or possibly tomorrow, he was talking about having "more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias." Still, it was a remarkably forward-looking speech.
Had we invested massively in alternative energy R&D back then, who knows where we might be today? Instead, the media dubbed it the "malaise speech," though the president never actually used that word, speaking instead of an American "crisis of confidence." While the initial public reaction seemed positive
, it didn't last long. In the end, the president's energy proposals were essentially laughed out of the room and ignored for decades.
As a symbolic gesture, Carter had 32 solar panels installed
on the White House. ("A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people: harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.") As it turned out, "a road not taken" was the accurate description. On entering the Oval Office in 1981, Ronald Reagan caught the mood of the era perfectly. One of his first acts was to order the removal of those panels and none were reinstalled for three decades, until Barack Obama was president.
Carter would, in fact, make his mark on U.S. energy policy, just not quite in the way he had imagined. Six months later, on January 23, 1980, in his last State of the Union Address
, he would proclaim what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: "Let our position be absolutely clear," he said. "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
No one would laugh him out of the room for that. Instead, the Pentagon would fatefully begin organizing itself to protect U.S. (and oil) interests in the Persian Gulf on a new scale and America's oil wars would follow soon enough. Not long after that address, it would start building up a Rapid Deployment Force in the Gulf that would in the end become U.S. Central Command. More than three decades later, ironies abound: thanks in part to those oil wars, whole swaths of the energy-rich Middle East are in crisis, if not chaos, while the big energy companies have put time and money into a staggeringly fossil-fuel version of Carter's "alternative" North America. they've focused on shale oil, and on shale gas as well, and with new production methods, they are reputedly on the brink of turning the United States
into a "new Saudi Arabia
If true, this would be the worst, not the best, of news. In a world where what used to pass for good news increasingly guarantees a nightmarish future, energy "independence" of this sort means the extraction of ever more extreme energy, ever more carbon dioxide heading skyward, and ever more planetary damage in our collective future. This was not the only path available to us, or even to Big Oil.
With their staggering profits, they could have decided anywhere along the line that the future they were ensuring was beyond dangerous. They could themselves have led the way with massive investments in genuine alternative energies (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, algal, and who knows what else), instead of the exceedingly small-scale ones they made, often for publicity purposes. They could have backed a widespread effort to search for other ways that might, in the decades to come, have offered something close to the energy levels fossil fuels now give us. They could have worked to keep the extreme-energy reserves that turn out to be surprisingly commonplace deep in the Earth.
And we might have had a different world (from which, by the way, they would undoubtedly have profited handsomely). Instead, what we've got is the equivalent of a tobacco company situation, but on a planetary scale. To complete the analogy, imagine for a moment that they were planning to produce even more prodigious quantities not of fossil fuels but of cigarettes, knowing what damage they would do to our health. Then imagine that, without exception, everyone on Earth was forced to smoke several packs of them a day.
If that isn't a terrorist -- or terrarist -- attack of an almost unimaginable sort, what is? If the oil execs aren't terrarists, then who is? And if that doesn't make the big energy companies criminal enterprises, then how would you define that term?
To destroy our planet with malice aforethought, with only the most immediate profits on the brain, with only your own comfort and wellbeing (and those of your shareholders) in mind: isn't that the ultimate crime? isn't that terracide?
[Note: Thanks go to my colleague and friend Nick Turse for coming up with the word "terracide."
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
[Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.]