“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment” said Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union speech yesterday. It was the launch of Sputnik that fired US imaginations to aim for the moon, a bit of Cold War one-upmanship that unleashed a wave of innovation as well as national pride. Obama is issuing a similar challenge. This time it’s China, not Russia, and the race is for clean energy. Instead of satellites and rockets, it will be about solar tiles, electric cars, and more efficient nuclear plants.
“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race” he told his fellow Americans. “In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”
Kennedy’s big challenge was to put a man on the moon. Here’s Obama’s: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Even better, that innovation could be funded by cutting fossil fuels subsidies. Amen, let’s reverse the stupid priorities in the image below.
Needless to say, climate change was notably absent from proceedings – this is a business plan and a job creation strategy. It’s okay to talk about breaking dependence on oil, but the whole thing would derail at the mention of de-carbonising. But still, isn’t this just the kind of thing we need the US to be talking about? This is just the kind of challenge the world’s most powerful politician needs to be laying down. Here’s hoping it captures the country’s imagination enough to overcome the fossil fuel lobbyists and naysayers.
The other reason the speech caught my eye is the contrast between this speech and what I was talking about yesterday, the New Home Front. There’s something profoundly British about it – the nation that survived the war, that stood up to Hitler by planting vegetables and switching off the lights. Here we are drawing inspiration from our survival story – we are the people who muddle through. And here is the US reminding itself that it landed on the moon, that as Obama’s closing words put it, “we do big things.” Kind of says something about our national psyches, I reckon.