current affairs politics technology

Obama: clean energy is the space race of our time

“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.


  1. I agree that there are significant differences in national myths and psyche, though it’s worth keeping in mind that the home front analogy was drawn by a Greens MP and the Sputnik analogy by a neo-liberal Democrat. However, I think your point still stands, since both myths are deeply associated with the respective nations, whomever it may have been in each case drawing upon them. I guess to build your case further you’d need to consider whether there aren’t also British myths of technical innovation and “doing big things” (Industrial Revolution?) and American myths of survival/conservation (?).

  2. Jeremy,

    I only caught a little bit of the SOTU address, and I missed this portion on his goal, but 80% by 2035 is great! It would be even better if he were to follow up with a goal of 100% by, say, 2045.

    And I agree, that we need to be talking about our emissions, but I think Obama is a pragmatist and knows that right now very few people in the American media and political realm will listen to him if he brings up climate change and carbon limits. With pushing 20% unemployment (that’s the actual number, including underemployed, not the published one) people really want to hear news about getting jobs and the economy “on track.” I would imagine his hope is that by setting a strong economic and “Sputnik moment” type goal with clean energy we will also be fighting our emissions.

    Also, the EPA is still fighting to reduce our emissions, the military moving on that as well (from a security perspective, interestingly enough). Neither are as big of cuts as we really need, and that is disappointing, but it is hopeful progress. Just crossing my fingers that between those things and individual and (dare I say) private business actions, we might edge out some reasonable reductions.

    The battle is far from won, but it’s progress.


    1. It’s interesting how the military have been working on both climate change and peak oil, and so have businesses. They’re ahead of everyone else there, more prepared to take a risk management approach I guess. Hopefully the carbon cutting will happen, or at least begin, even if talking about it isn’t possible yet.

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