Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Speeches schmeeches. The political light at the end of the tunnel is a coal miner’s lamp.

I like Juan Cole and rely on his Informed Comment. He’s pretty on the ball. But I was a little disappointed to see him describe Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s recent speech at the Democratic convention as possibly “the most important address on energy given so far by an American politician.” (He includes video of the speech. To make it even easier on you, I’ll do it too.) (And here’s the text of the speech.) To Cole’s credit, he does also say, “Now if only someone could get him off this liquefied coal kick.” That’s rather something of an understatement. Maybe Cole thinks so highly of Schweitzer because he takes his cue from Daily Kos—a hotbed of Schweitzer support. And hey, I think it’s pretty danged cool that Montana’s got a proud Democrat as governor and I think there’s plenty about Schweitzer to support. Maybe it helps that Cole was following the Sierra Club’s lead in praising Schweitzer’s speech. Even still, if Schweitzer’s speech is the top of the game for U.S. politicians to date, we are so far from where we need to be it’s a little scary, and I’m a little baffled that Cole and the Sierra Club would give the speech such strong kudos. I commented on Cole’s blog in reaction to this, but wanted to say it more clearly and out in the open. Here’s my comment:
It’s not just that he’s such a promoter of liquified coal—which would undermine any and all progress we made by avoiding use of that barrel of oil. It’s his philosophical starting point. “We face a great new challenge…a world energy crisis that threatens…our very way of life.” Where have I heard that before? Oh, right, from Dick “not negotiable” Cheney. That’s is precisely why Schweitzer promotes liquified coal.* “Our” way of life is the problem. “Our” way of life requires more energy than it is possible to provide in a responsible, secure, clean, or economical way. Not every aspect of “our” way of life, of course. But too many aspects are built upon a blind assumption that we will always have seemingly unlimited cheap energy available. Just like the rich kid who never had to really work to achieve financial success, “our” way of life is a spoiled way of life, when it comes to energy. When there’s not enough energy to keep us happy, we just complain to Mommy and Daddy government, and they go give out corporate subsidies to encourage more extraction of fossil fuels, they go shove nerdy gadfly climate scientists into the corner, telling them “I don’t have time for your mumbo jumbo—my kid needs a 48 inch plasma screen TV and by God, he’s gonna get it!” When a prominent politician is wise enough and brave enough to speak that truth to the American people on national TV, then maybe I’ll be willing to think of it as “an important address.” (I don’t require that the politician be obnoxious in their rhetoric, the way, I admit, I have a little bit been.) *Okay, the other reason is that he’s Montana’s governor, and it’s his job to promote anything that will help create new jobs and bring more money into the state. At least, that’s the way governorships are designed these days. Consequences be damned, and all.
Now there was a truly useful statement made at the DNC on this topic. (Maybe more than one, but I only saw a smattering of the speeches.) Al Gore was the only one I saw who didn’t target the boogie man of “foreign oil,” but the power behind the throne, our dependency “on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.” (Emphasis added.) Here’s his speech. (Here’s the text of the speech.) I don’t nominate Gore’s speech to fill the shoes that Cole described, “the most important address on energy given so far by an American politician.” Gore isn’t a politician any more, so he doesn’t have the same pressure on him—the way Schweitzer definitely does from his own in-state coal lobby. But just as Robert Kuttner argues in Obama’s Challenge on economic issues, that a “transformative president” is one who can be “teacher-in-chief,” telling the American people hard truths and explaining to us the realities we must face and embark upon to deal with those truths, we need politicians who can be transformative leaders on the energy-and-climate issue. We need them to be leaders while they are in office, not only after they retire from elective politics. The speech that makes a difference? We’re still waiting. [Photo courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.]

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