Sitting in front of a fire, wearing a cardigan sweater, in February 1977 President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation about the energy crisis that had punched the country in the gut. Clearly the White House’s thermostat must have been turned down. The fire crackled, making the living room warm and toasty. Carter spoke of national policies but also what citizens could do, uttering the words “conservation” and “sacrifice.” The message was clear: turn off unnecessary lights, turn down the thermostat, put on a goddamned sweater.
I remember clearly the contrast from the December before, when every house in my neighborhood was decked out in holiday lights, to the following December when there were no holiday lights to be seen. Everyone took to heart the message of conservation, and also perhaps the message that the annual rite of hauling out ladders to string the lights was no longer necessary. And ever since, the rite is no longer obligatory but voluntary. Now I marvel when I see a house strung out in lights.
I wonder what social distancing — what the mandate to work at home, what the elbow bump (that now is even too close) — will do to our social practices. I can teach class from my living room. Maybe I could teach it from across the world? Why risk running into a student or colleague in the hallway?
Jimmy Carter was absolutely correct about what we needed then and still need to do now about our energy habits. He discussed not just conservation but renewables and a comprehensive national policy.
Now in the face of a viral pandemic, it is absolutely right for us to stay as far away from each other as we can. But not forever, I hope. Not for long.
Conservation is key for energy policy or what we now think of as climate change policy. Social distancing is necessary to stave off the coronavirus. But these are ways of addressing symptoms, not getting at underlying and systemic processes. Addressing climate change means developing renewable sources of energy, just as Carter anticipated over forty years ago but which has yet to be carried through. In fact, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has been busy rolling back Obama’s climate change measures.
Likewise, preventing pandemics requires robust public health policies. But instead of these, the United States’ health care system is geared to addressing individual’s needs (or at least those with decent health insurance) not the systems that allow for the proliferation of illness in the first place.
If we address the roots of these problems, maybe the future could hold holiday cheer and lots of hugs and kisses from all our friends.