The climate road not taken—in 1980 (a story with Iran in it)

January 8, 2020 at 9:23 am (By Amba) (, , , )

Few people remember that we had a real chance to go another way that long ago—and rejected it.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency is remembered for his cringeworthy soft-spoken piety and sincerity (so uncool and unmacho it was un-American), and for his engineered impotence over the Iran hostage crisis (the Reagan campaign was working behind the scenes with Iran to delay the release of the hostages till after the 1980 election—a much-mocked “conspiracy theory” that proved to be true). With the election of Ronald Reagan, America shook off its warranted malaise and soul-searching and strode into a sunny “morning” of hearty, manly, steak-eating extractive industries, Wall Street casinos siphoning wealth upward, and chest-beating denial. We’re now reaping the reckoning and denial is still the medicine of choice, though alternative energy is now far cheaper and more efficient than it was when Jimmy Carter first advocated it.

That’s right. Did you know or (if you’re old enough) remember that Jimmy Carter pushed for clean energy independence when OPEC prices soared and there were gas lines around the block? I am old enough and I did not remember. My cousin Joan Levin (my mother’s second cousin—their grandfathers were brothers) reminded me:

When we moved to DC my first job was at DOE. One of President Carter’s goals was to produce — darn, I can’t recall the numbers – I think it was like 40 quads (quadrillion kilowatts) of energy from NON-fossil sources by the year 2000.  

So this was our mission in the Solar and Conservation unit where I worked.  Our job was to encourage production of non-fossil energy sources with government grants, loans and cooperative agreements.  So this included solar, wind, water movement, and yes, even [methane biogas from cow manure].

But when Reagan was elected he famously said that Carter’s Solar and Conservation programs would make us “hot in the summer and cold in the winter” and shut them down.  And that’s when I left DOE (where I could have stayed forever because I was civll service, but doing what?) and went to work for Public Citizen Health Research Group where . . . I wrote books and articles with doctors.

This was just an aside in a spirited discussion of Joan’s lifelong avocation (she’s a lawyer) as a writer of occasional songs and lyrics that can approach Gilbert & Sullivan levels. Methane biogas was the occasion for the following, which she used as her audition to write for the 1981 Hexagon charity revue in Washington.

The scene opens with an actor in the role of Barry Commoner, a
well-known environmentalist of the day, and author of “Politics of
Energy,” explaining the possibilities for the intestinal gas of
cattle. (Sadly, methane now turns out to be a climate change
issue, but that was not an issue being discussed at that time.)

(Recitative, 4/4 time)
I used to burn the midnight oil, and lie awake each night;
Reflecting on what I could do, to set our country right!
Our President has told us that this crisis equals war,
And every citizen must act to help our country score!
So here’s a plan that I devised to keep our Nation strong,
And send those tanks of foreign oil,
Right back where they belong!
OH —–

(3/4 time)
Be a “Farter for Carter,”
Break some wind if you can!
Harness “church creepers,” one may be a sleeper,
To power the launch of our energy plan!
Eat some beans, they are tuneful!
We’ll build a new fuel source from scratch!
Be a self-starter, be a “Farter for Carter!”
Just remember: Don’t light that match!

Hexagon did hire her as a writer, though they didn’t use that piece. I was telling her how much my dad would have loved it (he was helpless to resist even bad butt humor) when she sprang this surprise on me—Carter’s clean energy advocacy. Now I dimly begin to remember. It seemed like a quixotic, utopian idea at the time, with the technology still in its early, expensive stages. There was a way, in 1980, but not a will.

In hindsight (ha ha), what a tragic missed opportunity.


  1. Polly said,

    Americans turn on the AC if the temperature goes above 66. And turn on the heat if the temperature goes below 72.

    They drive huge SUVs and park as close as possible, to avoid walking even ten steps.

    And this is just as true of the environmentalists I know.

  2. tom strong said,

    Kind of off-topic, but it really is amazing to me that probably 50-60 percent of the population (and an even greater percentage of my fellow men) would consider Donald Trump to be a better example of thriving, “alpha” masculinity than Jimmy Carter.

    Trump, of course, is a complete physical and emotional coward, as everyone but his most fanatical followers can see. And his wealth, however enormous it may be, is largely the result of his inheritance rather than any actions he took as an adult.

    Carter, by contrast, served a long and accomplished career in the US Navy, and while his parents were wealthy, he inherited very little due to his father’s debts and large family. He is pretty much a self-made man, and in one of the most stereotypically “manly” careers, farming.

    (none of this is to say he was a good president, he most assuredly was not)

    Anyway, what fools we mortals be.

  3. amba12 said,

    Carter has been called our greatest ex-president. Whatever else he is, he’s a steadfast example of Christianity in action. And as such, oddly. fearless.

  4. amba12 said,

    As far as the cultural standard of “manhood” is concerned, it seems to be all about show and not substance. Better a blustery coward than a humble hero.

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