Barack to the Future: It's Electric!

Remarkably, over a century ago the cutting-edge transportation technologies were electric vehicles and bio-diesel fuels.

Published: 26-Jan-2009

A serious recycling ethic might embrace the maxim that “everything old is new again.” Indeed, shades of Honest Abe, FDR, JFK, and MLK permeated the inauguration proceedings. It would seem, as Utah Phillips said, that “the past didn’t go anywhere.”

And that’s a good thing. With the tendency to look ahead, we’d also do well to recall the time-tested wisdom of bygone days. Notions of bioregionalism, local economies, village self-governance, and extended family units are parts of our heritage that resonate strongly today as we seek creative ways out of the mess left in the wake of Hurricane Bush.

One touchstone for all of this is transportation. Modern conveyances have brought the world closer, but have turned the planet into a global supermarket. Perhaps a few exotic items from afar make an interesting addition to one’s palate, but when almost nothing we consume is local any longer, something has gone horribly awry. Long-range transportation of goods and foodstuffs is pervasive, and with a heavy reliance on carbon inputs creates a hidden cost to everything that’s rarely accounted for in our personal and political calculations.

Remarkably, over a century ago the cutting-edge transportation technologies were electric vehicles and bio-diesel fuels. The impetus of the petroleum economy, and the undemocratic nature of the power wielded by its proponents, have taken humanity on a planet-wide regressive arc with repercussions ranging from perpetual resource wars to runaway climate change.

Rudolf Diesel was killed after patenting engines that ran smoothly on potentially self-made sources like peanut oil, and the modern electric car was killed by a confluence of Big Oil, Big Auto, and Big Brother. And here we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today, literally stalled in geopolitical traffic while the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane is wide open, sitting with our engines idling and tailpipes spewing fumes, vaguely aware that alternatives exist somewhere.

Those alternatives actually existed in the past, and they’re on the horizon in the near future, as autogreeenblog.com implied in 2008: “The Electric Runabout, made by Columbia, was the first electric car ridden in by a U.S. President. That historical event happened over 105 years ago, in case you were wondering. The 1903 Columbia Electric Runabout had a 40-mile range and … was powered by a 40-volt, 30 amp motor.”

A U.S. President rode in an electric car over 100 years ago? What a statement it would have been if our new President had done something similar during his inauguration. Instead, we got ‘The Beast,’ “a hulking behemoth of a Cadillac that befits its nickname.” Couldn’t The Beast have been powered electrically for the inaugural ride? With all of the ‘fashionistas’ obsessing on Mrs. O’s dresses, wouldn’t it have been cool if some air time was spent ruminating on Prez-O’s stylish new green ride?

Yes Mr. President, you did bring up energy and the environment in your inaugural address, and there are some encouraging signs posted on the new whitehouse.gov site including benchmarks for hybrid vehicles and reduced emissions. Naysayers will carp about alternatives being too expensive or cumbersome, but if green energy was given a subsidy to the tune of the trillions spent on oil wars, we’d be well on our way to affordable large-scale alternatives by now. So your inaugural words do have traction:

“Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet… We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories… [N]or can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

A good start, to be sure. But we live in the “walk your talk” era, not only because it’s the age of instant video and the perpetual blogosphere, but because time is short and we need inspired action as much as we need inspiring words. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House back in the day (Reagan immediately took them down, of course), and some folks have been talking about gardening on the White House lawn. But what will you do? Connect all of the stationary bikes in the Capitol to the power grid? Run Air Force One on biofuels? Convert the fleet to solar-powered electrics? Think big, O!

Mr. President, take us back to the future and make this one of your signature efforts. Hybrids are okay, but they’re actually a step back from where we were a century ago. Energy inputs define historical epochs, and here’s a chance for you personally to help usher in a much-needed political paradigm shift that can outline your presidency as well. There’s an electric feeling in Washington and the world right now -- so let’s roll with it!

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly 2008), and he writes a regular blog for The Huffington Post.

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