Blog post

Last night's presidential speech on the Gulf oil spill had been pre-billed by the Washington Post as Barack Obama's "Jimmy Carter moment." But reading any of Carter's speeches (a good one to start with is that of April 18, 1977) side by side with last night's bromide is an invitation to nostalgia and bitter disappointment.

President Obama offered up one promising paragraph:

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked—not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."


It sounds for all the world as though the President is about to unleash a grand program on the scale of the New Deal—an energy Moon Shot, a rousing call-to-arms reminiscent of December 8, 1941. But this is what follows:

"So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party—as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development—and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny—our determination to fight for the America we want for our children, even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there, we know we'll get there."


Translation: "I don't have a clue what to do; but, if anyone else has some good ideas, I'm all ears."

Look: I want Obama to succeed; I want it earnestly, even desperately. And so I hate to be critical. It's true that we've all got to work together to solve our energy crisis, and that means rising above partisanship. But leadership is sorely needed here, and leaders must set definite goals.

Jimmy Carter at least had a plan. He proposed lofty objectives and investments: targeted reductions in oil imports, an energy security corporation, a solar bank. In contrast, Obama's strategy seems to be to avoid specifics while insisting that we Americans will somehow overcome our oil dependency because . . . well, because we're Americans. We've gotten through other scrapes throughout our history as a nation, so why not this one? "I demand action," the President seems to be saying, "but I'm unwilling to say what that action should be."

Yes, we Americans have risen to meet previous challenges. The problem is, we haven't been doing so well in dealing with the energy crisis, which has been going on for at least forty years—since 1970, when U.S. oil production peaked and began declining. Despite complaints, exhortations, and hand-wringing from both Democratic and Republican administrations, very little has actually been accomplished. America continues to import more oil, and to burn enormous amounts of coal and natural gas—and the monetary, geopolitical, and environmental prices we pay for these depleting fuels just keep escalating. Mr. Obama seems to say that now something has changed, but it would be nice to know what, and why, in a lot more detail.

The reality is that nothing significant has been done to deal with our energy crisis because tackling it will require fundamental changes to our economy—to our transport and food systems, even to our financial institutions. Until we are willing to honestly face the fact that an "American dream" based on ever increasing rates of consumption of non-renewable resources is a dead end, and that we will have to dramatically cut back on energy usage in order to make a transition away from fossil fuel dependency, all discussion about renewable energy, efficiency standards, and energy research is fairly pointless.

Call it the Carter Curse. Ever since the great peanut farmer-President scolded the American people about the need to reduce consumption in his famous series of cardigan-clad homilies, leaders have shied away both from telling the American people the truth about just how dire our energy dilemma really is, and from proposing any remedies powerful enough to make a difference. Instead we get only whimpers about our "addiction to oil" and timid suggestions to raise fuel economy standards another notch. It is assumed that if any President actually told it like it is—the way Carter did—he or she would suffer the same fate. Carter's plan, after all, was ignored by Congress and ridiculed by candidate Ronald Reagan, who trounced Carter in the 1980 election.

Maybe the Carter Curse is real. Perhaps straight talk about energy is political suicide. But if nobody at least tries—if no one has the courage to make specific proposals that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge that faces us—then the political survival of the current office holder is essentially irrelevant. If no one is willing to confront the Carter Curse head on, then in effect we face a failure of our political system that will also ensure a failure of our economic system, our food system, and our transport system.

I keep hoping that's not the case, but hope needs to be based on evidence from time to time, and I'm not seeing any.

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Reader Comments


Macondo blowout

From: Tony Allwright, Jul 11, 2010 12:35 AM

My commentary on the set of three articles ....

+ “Deepwater Horizon - The Worst Case Scenario” ....
+ “Deepwater Horizon - The Best Case and Most Likely”....
+ “A Tepid Plea for Unspecified Change” ....

may be found at ....

How to procede, Mr. President

From: David N Hastings, Jul 2, 2010 01:19 PM

I do commend the President for reminding us that we are addicted to oil, and that fear, as well as intimidation by oil company lobbyists ( to say nothing of donations!) have made us entirely too slow in beginning to move from the age of oil into the 'renewables' age. But...
I believe that it is long past time that the American people were made aware of the likely results of continuation down our current path, doing business as usual and favoring the economy over the environment. I have read a lot, from many sources, about the changes that are coming (which have really already begun, actually), and I think that we all need to be told in cold, dispassionate terms, what these changes are likely to be, what the world is already headed toward, and what it can become if we don't start now to get away from fossil fuels.
I just finished Bill McKibben's new book, Eaarth. The first two chapters frankly scared me spitless. We have already made changes so that Earth is not the place we were born into, and we cannot return it to what it was then, either. All we can do is try our hardest to keep the damages as small as possible by getting away from using fossil fuels and by developing renewable sources of energy as quickly as possible. As Mr McKibben esentially says, there is no going back, and it's going to be a tough sled, but we can ease the ride and soften the landing.
This is the unequivocal message which the President must bring to the people. It will be difficult, and we will have to be prepared in advance to receive the full brunt of the situation. But it must be started now. We've already waited too long.

Mr. Obama's courage to open the door

From: Paul Shepherd, Jun 17, 2010 05:53 AM

Mr. Obama at least had enought courage to open the door on the coming energy crisis, America's oil dependency and the urgent need to start a transition away from oil and other fossil fuels.

He described the some aspects of the oil crisis pretty well. He was honest enought to admit that there are no easy answers and he doesn't know what to do but he is open to ideas. Mr. Obama talks about the months ahead but is a bit unclear what he means by the months ahead.

'All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction.'

How many months ahead? 6 months?

Mr. Obama has opened the door on this. Is this a window of opportunity for Post Carbon & Transition Town and other groups in the USA who care deeply about this to get a hearing (a fair hearing!) from the President and maybe get some sort of a government-led transition action plan going?

By the way, I'm not American, I'm British-born, living in Japan.

Not just non-renewables

From: Tony Weddle, Jun 16, 2010 10:46 PM

Great commentary, Richard. I just want to pick up on one point. The American dream (and that of the people of other nations) is based on increasing consumption of all resources, not just non-renewable resources. I raise that simply to intercept the potential thought (which I know you, yourself, don't entertain) that switching to renewables would enable continued wasteful and growing consumption. As you say in your five axioms of sustainability, consumption of any resource beyond its renewal rate is unsustainable. This applies equally to renewable and non-renwable resources.

RE Referendems

From: Michelle Laine, Jun 16, 2010 08:51 PM

Ed - I take it you never criticized Bush, then?


From: Ed Straker, Jun 16, 2010 08:48 PM

"where has the movement that got Obama in, gone? It was the people uniting together that was powerful."

A president's popularity is a referrendum on how americans feel about their status and the state of the nation. Even though the US isn't a monarchy, we look to the presidency as kind of an omnipotent position. We would never want to concede that some problems are really dilemmas that can't be solved, whether it be the economy or the BP spill. There is, instead, a constant barrage of "coulda shoulda wouldas".

So it's easy to fantasize that it would have been "morning in america" again if we hadn't passed the bailout package, or that somehow "Obama" could have plugged the well if he had done X, Y, or Z. But people simply do not think these scenarios through enough to know if they were reasonable scenarios. It's easier to cling to the idea that there was some hail-mary pass somewhere that was overlooked.

That's the way we are. We anoint our royalty and then proceed to tear them apart afterwards.

And you wonder why good people don't want to enter into politics...

Watching from afar

From: Carl, Jun 16, 2010 02:45 PM

Watching from afar in the South Pacific Ocean, where has the movement that got Obama in, gone?
It was the people uniting together that was powerful.

Jimmy Carter

From: LucAstro, Jun 16, 2010 01:43 PM

While Reagan easily won the 1980 presidential elections, it was in good part due to the humiliation the US suffered at the hands of the American hostage taking by Iranian activists. Carter in the end produced a deal with Iran to free the hostages; an agreement that Reagan signed and promulgated a few weeks after taking power (how ironic in a way). Humiliation is the easiest button to push to get a wild reaction from the other side. 9/11 was possibly the result of such humiliation on the part of the Saudis many decades earlier, according to Johan Galtung (see the Democracy Now interview of Tuesday 15th of June ).

Change we can believe in...

From: Tian Harter, Jun 16, 2010 01:36 PM

I've heard Obama's voice say "change we can believe in" so many times I feel like I'm walking across an Illinois quarter every time I hear him speak. We know what the changes we need are. One of them is we need to acknowledge that we have more courage than our politicians, and we can lead change from the grass roots.

BTW: Did you know that back in the late '70s in Arizona you could get a ticket for "wasting a finite resource" for going faster than 55 but not really speeding? I like how Obama said "Oil is a finite resource."


From: Leroy R Jagodinski, Jun 16, 2010 01:35 PM

I agree that leadership is needed so much but when leadership is over taken by greed we all are forsaken. By our Government and buy the People that we work for. And that is why I do not have a job now and so many others. I go to Church and see it but a lot of people that go to church do not see what the people that have taken over the churches are doing to make them wealthy and keep us that are working for them under their hierarchy. And that is the reason I go to My Church because the people there are just Gods people that just want to be and not to be used by the the Greedy.

Population Policy

From: Rebecca Redfield, Jun 16, 2010 09:30 AM

Robert is correct. While we ponder what might have been had we listened to Jimmy Carter on energy, we would do well to consider another missed opportunity. In 1970, Richard Nixon (a Republican president who, despite his tarnished record, left an surprisingly good legacy of environmental legislation) authorized what is known as the Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. Its report, made in 1972, can be read at and is another instance of American failure to act in a timely manner.

Most environmental groups now like to pretend population growth isn't as big a problem as consumption, while branding as racist any call to restrict immigration to the highest consuming nation. Had we implemented the recommendations of the Rockefeller Commission, we would have provided leadership and an example for the entire world, and we would not be on track, as we are now, to hit a population of nearly half a billion Americans by mid-century.

Powerful forces in this country and the world oppose halting population growth, let alone (through a fall in birth rates) allowing human population to fall to a level the planet can support at a reasonably decent standard of living. But policies to reverse population growth, though tough to implement, would be easier to establish than reducing consumption on a scale large enough to be meaningful. Years ago we might have done so, but so many Americans have been seduced by rhetoric about our "non-negotiable" way of life that I doubt we will reduce consumption before ecological, financial, and social collapse force the issue.

"We're Not Gonna Take It"

From: Ed Straker, Jun 16, 2010 08:22 AM

"Maybe the Carter Curse is real. Perhaps straight talk about energy is political suicide."

Of course it is. Look at the climate change debate, which has been out in the open for years. Do think Obama supporting climate legislation moves the dial on this issue? The PUBLIC won't embrace the issue. So the problem isn't political courage. The problem is the average person will not accept the message. It will be like the end of The Who's Tommy. The public embraces hope and change and then crucifies him on the accusation of a bait and switch:

We ain't gonna take you
Never did and never will
We're not gonna take you
We forsake you
Gonna rape you
Let's forget you better still.

Next Term

From: Joshua Nelson, Jun 16, 2010 08:16 AM

I hope that all this middle-of-the-road, non-specific leadership that Obama is exuding is just to keep working against the Bush era silently now until his second term when he can come out and say: "Okay, so let's seriously do this - no more oil by 2030, no more gas cars by 2020. 90% Renewable energy by 2030." We have the technology and the manpower to do it all, we just need the leadership (and the change in policy).

One can hope. The reality is, even if he's doing a lack-luster job, we have to re-elect him in 2012 or face a wack-job republican president that will likely be worse than Bush.

Great post! I love this blog!


the president's speech

From: Tracy Carpenter, Jun 16, 2010 07:53 AM

While it was not all that we could have hoped, it has given us a soapbox moment. Now might be the time to talk about beginning a Transition Town in your area. The subject is out there. There is a significant subset of every population who are wondering, what can I do? Seize it!

What about population?

From: Robert, Jun 16, 2010 07:45 AM

If talking about energy is political suicide, what about addressing the real elephant in the room and the most important factor in energy and resource consumption which is population growth? Here's a start, how about suggesting a halt or at the very least an extreme cut back in U.S. immigration numbers. The high level of immigration into the U.S. is the main reason for our population growth and increasing resource consumption. Let's start addressing the real problem, not our addiction to oil but our addiction to population growth.