My first foray into this topic, “Sex is better with energy efficiency,” was warmly – aye, steamingly – received. (We are a simple people, no?) So let’s dive deeper…
First, for the record: Jimmy Carter is a great man, a courageous humanitarian, and a vastly underappreciated former President. It’s not his fault. But one of the founding myths of the modern energy efficiency “movement”, if we can call it that, is that his “moral equivalent of war” speech and his fireside chats on energy were a huge cultural setback for conservation.
By framing energy conservation as a moral proposition (goes the myth) he made it somehow trivial, sentimental, insubstantial. In order to elevate energy efficiency to its proper place as a big manly energy alternative, we must think of it not as a lecture, not as a lifestyle admonition, but as an energy resource — just like a power plant. We must never, ever call it “conservation,” because that smacks of moralism; we must call it “efficiency” in order to underscore its practical, effective, hard-nosed utility as an energy option.
I wish to explode this myth.
The problem wasn’t that Jimmy Carter framed conservation as a moral issue. It IS a moral issue (AND our largest, cheapest, most important energy resource). The problem, in a nutshell, was The Sweater.
To observe that The Sweater was profoundly unattractive is to dwell on the obvious. But the issue goes well beyond the butt-ugliness. The problem was that The Sweater, and its wearer, came to symbolize national impotence, and the weakness rubbed off on energy conservation. Look at that damned cardigan; a bald eagle wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing! It’s fuzzy and pathetic and yella!
Once again, Jimmy Carter is a great man and it wasn’t his fault, but his Presidency occupies a place of doubt and deprecation in an American myth that celebrates exceptionalism and virility. That he was followed by the strapping, ruddy, anti-ambivalent Ronald Reagan was no accident. “Morning in America” was the light at the end of the dark tunnel of national tentativeness for which the Carter era is (inaccurately) remembered. The cardigan became a pathetic symbol of that, and the “malaise” oozed out all over energy conservation.
Which is why, inspired by a great upwelling of national pride, or something, I googled up these images. I think you will agree that they illustrate a keen grasp of marketing on my part.
(Important preliminary research finding: Penelope Cruz apparently does not wear sweaters.)
It may take another blog post to get to it, but there is actually a point to all this. And it’s not just that we need to make energy efficiency sexier.
It’s that the clean energy transition must be enormous and robust. And it must be accelerated in an era when large public institutions are increasingly prevented from doing much of anything, let alone enormous, robust things.
We can’t give up on large institutions – we must redemocratize them. But we also need to drive the clean energy revolution up from the bottom. Powered by distributed technology, connected by interactive media, and affirmed by new cultural norms and rewards (including but not limited to sex; but hey, might as well start with sex), the clean energy revolution is gaining inexorable momentum, even though it remains formally undeclared. And we have to lean into that cultural transition, not run away from it.
Moral imperatives and psychosocial rewards CAN go together….just not in a yellow cardigan.
We’ll shoot to get more GRIP on that down the road.