by Angela Hotaling
Last Tuesday, at the GreenGov Symposium at George Washington University the Obama Administration announced its decision to use solar panels and a solar hot water heater in the White House. This decision has generated a lot of media attention. John M. Broder, of the New York Times Green blog said in his October 5th post that “The announcement is part of a broader administration push to promote renewable energy and reduce emissions of climate altering gases produced by fossil fuels.”
Just a month ago Bill McKibben of 350.org attempted to convince the Obama Administration to reinstall President Carter’s solar panels. Broder mentions that McKibben’s feelings toward the decision are all positive, Broder says, “He is thrilled that the White House has finally seen the light.” It is an interesting choice of words considering the rays of sun that will soon heat parts of the White House Residence.
For many environmentalists, this is fantastic news. The assurance that environmental issues and the energy crisis are of priority for the leaders of our country is an inspirational feeling. If the president of our country is taking environmental sustainability seriously, then what kind of message is he sending to businesses, state governments, and individuals all over; how will this message be received?
Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post that President Carter’s approach to the energy crisis was similar to Obama’s and unfortunately might be viewed similarly as well. He says, “Obama's insistence on realism comes across as pessimism. This is our national character flaw, and it is what did in Carter: Ask us for sacrifice, and we'll show you the door.”
Indeed, sacrifice is a key element to actually committing to more sustainable practices. The popular, yet extremely vague cultural trend known as “going green” might confuse how serious these sacrifices actually are. Adapting clean sources of renewable energy for homes and businesses requires significant commitment, change, and at times money. Obama is trying to lead by example, but is he doing it right or for the right reasons?
The president’s decision is a symbol to show that sustainable energy has benefits as long and prosperous as the rays of sunshine themselves. The benefits of solar power range from more jobs for Americans, more affordable energy costs, and an international message that the U.S is committed to environmental sustainability. Broder quoted Steven Chu, the White House’s energy secretary saying, “This project reflects President Obama’s strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home.”
In addition, Nancy Sutley, of the Council of Environmental Quality, said in her October 5th blog post that Obama wants the members of the federal government to “look inward and push ourselves to operate more sustainably.” Other than tax credits and various monetary benefits, promoting the ethical richness of appreciating, protecting, and working to take care of the environment, the world we live in, and so on is missing from the government’s attempts at leading the way in sustainable energy and environmental awareness. In order to instill these kinds of values into the mass of American society and make it affordable, perhaps leading by example is not enough.
Solar panels themselves are a visible symbol; they are quite noticeable! Are we really ready to commit ourselves to taking seriously the notion of sustainable energy, or are we simply tickled by the idea that we are now going to fashionably lead the renewable resource way? Is this decision based on our culture’s attachment to the visual appearances and the cultural trend of “greenness” or an actual step in valuing a sustainable future? Looking inward, as Sutley words it, might be a start at incorporating the ethical into this debate.
I know when I think about my environmental appreciation and the actions I take to live a more sustainable life, my personal set of values always comes into play. If Obama’s approach to the energy crisis is viewed as pessimistic as was Carter’s, perhaps adopting and incorporating a broader environmental consciousness could give people deep personal benefits that aren’t just financial.
Image courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov.