Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Waiting for Sputnik

Tomorrow's fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik seems like an odd sort of event for Americans to commemorate, unless the lesson is that we can start out behind and still win. I've seen many Sputnik articles and commentaries in the past week, and one of the better ones, in Monday's Washington Post, included some useful reminders of just how wrong our immediate post-Sputnik predictions about the future turned out to be. We may not have colonies on the Moon and Mars, but, as the author put it, "Sputnik plus the Internet equals Google Maps." That sort of unpredictability of ultimate outcomes might apply equally well to our current perceptions about energy and climate change, for which a wake-up call as dramatic as Sputnik's might yet lie somewhere ahead.

Aside from ushering in the Space Age, Sputnik was one of those remarkable "caught napping" moments in US history. Although I have no recollection of the immediate aftermath, since I was an infant at the time, the shock wave from Sputnik certainly shaped my childhood and influenced my educational choices. Anyone looking for a comparable current influence from energy or the environment would come up short. Even though both of these concerns routinely make headlines, the effect of these issues on our daily lives remains modest. Our children aren't yet growing up in a nation urgently reorganizing itself to meet the challenges these issues represent, as it did around the parallel arms and space races with the Soviet Union. Many still hope they won't have to, and that oil prices will fall and climate change prove illusory.

In thinking about what a Sputnik for energy or climate might look like, it's helpful to consider why neither meets that standard, today. It has taken oil prices roughly four years to triple their former average level, and the increase owes as much to higher demand spurred by economic growth as to supply constraints. That's very different from the oil shocks of the 1970s. As to climate change, while our awareness is growing steadily, the feedback loop of cause-and-effect, response-and-reaction is longer than our attention spans. The fact that there is still argument about our contribution to the problem and what to do about it is strong evidence that we haven't reached the galvanizing moment at which all doubt is cast aside.

So what would qualify? Certainly not just a politician or media figure telling us that one or the other problem is urgent. We hear that ever day about a host of issues. It would have to be something external and dramatic. On energy, the possibilities are easy to imagine: We awaken one morning to discover that Osama bin Laden has taken over a major Middle East producer, or Hugo Chavez has decided to export 100% of Venezuela's oil to China. Or the Saudis announce that their production has peaked, and oil futures soar to $200. On the climate side things are trickier. Most of the big signals only make sense as part of a larger pattern, after the fact. It's impossible to discern whether individual hurricanes, droughts, or heat waves are signposts of global warming or just random weather events. Melting icecaps may be as close as we come, but they still lack the gut-wrenching immediacy of a Sputnik, Pearl Harbor, or 9/11.

As unwelcome as that kind of surprise might be, it almost seems necessary to overcome the complacency of gradual change--the proverbial "boiling frog". Absent a Sputnik moment for energy and climate change, how do we convince the public of the need for action, for the equivalent of a Manhattan Project or Apollo Program to address these problems, if that's what it takes? Perhaps, for a change, we will have to trust in the good judgment of our fellow citizens, if we provide them all the facts--including those that do not align with our view of impending catastrophe--and lay out all of the choices and their likely consequences. That by itself might be as novel and empowering as another Sputnik.

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