"New Energy Economy: Part 4, Creating a tangible vision of the future"
Now that the 2008 election finally is over, let’s go to Disney World.
I’ll explain, but first some background. The dominant theme of the long presidential campaign was change. The vote on Nov. 4 was a clear mandate for President Obama to make it happen. But what kind of change? And once we begin to define it, will we all disagree?
We need a national conversation on the topic of change, on America’s future. The conversation is sufficiently important that it should be convened by President Obama himself. In fact, along with all of the other tasks that will occupy the transition team between now and January 20, a few members of the team should be assigned to focus on our national trip to Disney World.
Here’s the idea:
Most of us seem to agree that America is standing at the threshold of a new era, a generational change and a new economy. With the old world crumbling all around us, it doesn’t take a Prius owner to accept the need for a radically new and exciting chapter in our history. The new economy has many aliases: the post-carbon economy, the carbohydrate economy, the new energy economy, the post-industrial economy, and the third industrial revolution, to mention a few. John McCaintalked about it. Barack Obama declared that a new energy economy would be his No. 1 priority as president. Bill Richardson and John Edwards made the new energy economy key planks of their presidential platforms.
A parade of speakers at Democratic National Convention picked up the theme, and so have leading Republican thinkers. Newt Gingrich, among others, envisions “a dynamic American economy producing its own energy, independent of dictators, using science and technology to create an exciting future, and continuing its role as the most prosperous and technologically advanced country in the world.” Governors from both parties — including Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Charlie Crist in Florida and Bill Ritter in Colorado — are making green jobs and climate action their legacies.
Much of the pain we are suffering right now is a result of what we might call the Detroit Syndrome — the perverse victory of the near term over the long term. The automakers and their workers are suffering because the Big Three, unlike the Japanese, decided to keep making big vehicles with big near-term profit margins. They ignored the long-term inevitability of high gasoline prices (an inevitability that remains, despite the recent drop in prices at the pump). Ford is shutting down plants, GM is pressing Congress for a multi-billion-dollar bailout on top of the $25 billion in loans Congress already okayed for Detroit to start making the fuel-efficient vehicles they should have started manufacturing on their own initiative years ago.
To avoid the Detroit Syndrome on national scale, the country needs to embrace the future rather than trying to avoid it. Some of us are able to embrace an abstraction like a “green economy”; others need something tangible. They need to see the future. What will a post-carbon America look like? What will zero-energy homes and workplaces, transit-oriented cities, and walkable neighborhoods be like? What do we want them to be like?
Earlier in this series of posts, I mentioned Futurama, the exhibit created by General Motors at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Visitors were moved through GM’s vision of the “wonderworld of 1960“, a “greater and better world of tomorrow that we are building today.”
Furturama was so successful that GM and other corporate sponsors followed up with Futurama 2 in 1964. In one exhibit, General Electric and Pepsi partnered with Walt Disney to produce virtual people who marketed their products, while giving Disney a chance to experiment with technologies he’d later employ at Disney World.
Now, we need Futurama 3 to give the American people the virtual experience of a carbon-free, energy independent, prosperous new economy. This time, citizens should be invited to help design that future. Our audio, visual and interactive technologies obviously have come a long way since 1939. Organizations such as PlaceMatters are expert at using powerful new visualization tools to help people make decisions about the future of their communities.
Obama’s people engineered the most sophisticated communications campaign in American political history. Now, they should persuade Disney, Google, Industrial Light and Magic, other New Age wizards, sponsored by today’s forward looking corporations, to build a new exhibit at Epcot Center, or a traveling exhibit, or a mind-blowing web-based adventure to help Americans experience and design life in a post-carbon world. Modern telecommunications technologies can be used to hold national town meetings in which President Obama engages the American people in a direct dialogue about the challenges and opportunities ahead. (During the Clinton Administration, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development held such a meeting in 1999.)
However we do it, it’s time for the nation to talk about the future in more precise and creative terms than merely calling for “change”. For the truly transformative change these times demand, President Obama and the 111th Congress will need to be bold. To be bold, they will need a sustained mandate from the people. The people are much more likely to give that mandate when they have seen the future and helped shape it.
The same is true worldwide. As we field-test the tools to help American citizens embrace the future, we should share them with the international community. Several new World’s Fairs are coming up. The next one, scheduled for 2010 in Shanghai, China, will explore the theme of “Better City, Better Life”. Yeosu, Korea will host the 2012 World’s Fair on “The Living Ocean and Coast”, and Milan, Italy will host the 2015 World’s Fair on the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, touching on health, the environment and shaping sustainable human spaces of the future.” Let’s use modern communications technology to allow the world’s people to attend without leaving home.
These are critical topics when the world population is exploding, when half the human population will soon live in cities, when most already live along threatened coastlines, when oceans are dying from pollution and climate change, and global cooperation is the key to peace, prosperity and stability. We need a tangible vision we can hold on to and move toward.
So, let this time of change take its next step with a national conversation and a sensory experience of the future — an Obamarama, if you will. Let it be civil and constructive. Let it go global. Let’s see, touch and feel where we need and want to go. If General Motors could do it nearly 70 years ago, we certainly can do it now.
– Bill B.