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A New Energy Future: Obama's Sputnik Moment

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On Wednesday, March 30, President Barack Obama announced a plan to cut US petroleum imports by as much as 33% by the year 2021. Now, that's what I call leadership. Many of America's biggest problems -- terror, despotic oil tyrants, trade imbalances, etc. -- are linked to over-dependency on foreign petroleum.  

Obama's plan to reduce oil imports is based largely upon commitments to increase domestic petroleum production and conservation. OK, more efficient cars and more well-insulated homes will certainly cut energy waste. Also, I think Obama's proposal to invest in biofuels has some merit, although I do not share his optimism about offshore oil production. Events last summer demonstrated that there are obvious problems associated with aggressive development of offshore petroleum. Hopefully, at the very least, Obama will take the precaution of excluding BP from any new offshore oil development opportunities in the western hemisphere.  

Far-reaching as Obama's new energy vision may be, the current plan has a number of glaring deficiencies. For one, where does renewable energy fit into the picture?

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Barack Obama declared that the US needed to seize this generation's "Sputnik moment" to ensure that the US will remain a global leader in the years ahead. Obama's point was that, in the 1950s, the Soviet's launch of Sputnik signaled that the US was being eclipsed by its competitors in the struggle for global supremacy. In response, this initiated an unprecedented commitment to technological advancement in the form of the space race: JFK declared that the US would be the first nation to land space-travelers on the moon. As we know from history, the US won that race and, in doing so, laid the technological groundwork to claim leadership in the information society on terra firma.

Thus, America's original Sputnik moment enabled the the US to secure its position as a global leader in the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, the US faces a whole new range of challenges in a much-altered global village. Consequently, President Obama asserted that the time has arrived for the US to reassert its claim to global leadership by embracing a new Sputnik Moment. In other words, the US needs to identify a new aspiration that will enable it, once again, to outdistance its global competitors. The only thing lacking from President Obama's State of the Union Address was a description of a specific event, or emergency -- such as the Soviet's launch of Sputnik -- around which to unify and motivate the American public.

Although I have an affinity for space exploration, I would argue that Obama's Sputnik Moment, should he choose to seize it, is renewable energy development. As Obama has been saying since he was a candidate for president in 2008, it is time for the US to end -- not merely cut back on -- its dependency on foreign oil. Quite simply, dependency on foreign oil causes the US nothing but huge expense, embarrassment (shouldn't we be able to look after our own energy needs?) and hassles with often-fractious oil-producing nations. Who needs the headaches?

If we want to put an end to the stranglehold that petty oil tyrants and their terrorist cousins have over the US, then all we need to do is create a new energy future. And when I say that, I am not suggesting that the US should make huge investments in nuclear fission technology. As the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has illustrated so tragically and emphatically, nuclear fission is old, dirty, dangerous technology. Therefore, nuclear fission should not be part of America's new energy future.

When I talk about a new energy future, I am referring to a wide range of technologies (such as, heliostat solar, orbital solar, nanotech solar, wind, geothermal, fusion, etc.) that are just beyond our fingertips and that would provide extraordinary new, clean, green, and abundant(!) energy sources. Such energy would enable the US to assert a whole new level of independence over its political, economic, technological and cultural future. The only thing that's preventing the US from creating entirely new breeds of renewable energies is a sufficient sense of urgency and strong, focused leadership.

JFK used his Sputnik Moment to secure America's leadership into the 21st Century, can Barack Obama seize his Sputnik Moment to ensure America's ongoing leadership as we speed toward the 22nd Century?

It's merely a question of leadership. The moment is at hand.

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Prof Tim teaches sociology at CSU-Pueblo and he writes books about social change, such as... A Formula for Eradicating Racism,

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