Is Obama Afraid of Solar Power?
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap up close and personal last week, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
The backstory: I help run a global warming campaign called 350.org. In midsummer, we decided to organize an effort to ask world leaders to put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was to be part of the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party on October 10 (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and politburos something easy to do in the hope of getting the fight against global warming slowly back on track. One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still committed to change, even though he hadn't managed to pass new laws.
And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the White House roof, way back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan took them down, they'd spent the last few decades on the cafeteria roof at Unity College in rural Maine. That college's president, Mitch Thomashow, immediately offered us a panel to take back to the White House. Better still, he encouraged three of his students to accompany the panel, not to mention allowing the college's sustainability coordinators to help manage the trip.
And so, on the day after Labor Day, we set off in a biodiesel college van. Solar road trip! Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food and, for company, the rock star of solar panels, all 6 x 3 feet and 140 pounds of her. We pulled into Boston that first night for a rally at Old South Church, where a raucous crowd lined up for the chance to sign the front of the panel, which quickly turned into a giant glass petition. The same thing the next night in New York, and then DC, with an evening at one of the city's oldest churches headlined by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip-Hop Caucus.
It couldn't have been more fun. Wherever we could, we'd fire up the panel, pour a gallon of water in the top, point it toward the sun, and eight or nine minutes later you'd have steaming hot water coming out the bottom. Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm—a vexing reminder that we've known how to do this stuff for decades. We just haven't done it.
That's what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across—the same way that seed sales climbed 30 percent across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.
There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn't heard anything conclusive from the White House. We'd asked them—for two months—if they'd accept the old panel as a historical relic returned home, and if they'd commit to installing new ones soon. We'd even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them free. Indeed, as word of our trip spread, other solar companies kept making the same offer. Still, the White House never really responded, not until Thursday evening around 6 pm, when they suddenly agreed to a meeting at nine the next morning.
As you might imagine, we were waiting at the "Southwest Appointment Gate" at 8:45, and eventually someone from the Office of Public Engagement emerged to escort us inside the Executive Office Building. He seated us in what he called "the War Room," an ornate and massive chamber with a polished table in the middle.
Every window blind was closed. It was a mahogany cave in which we could just make out two environmental bureaucrats sitting at the far end of the table. I won't mention their names, on the theory that what followed wasn't really their idea, but orders they were following from someone else. Because what followed was… uncool.
First, they spent a lot of time bragging about all the things the federal government had accomplished environmentally, with special emphasis on the great work they were doing on other federal buildings. One of them returned on several occasions to the topic of a government building in downtown Portland, Oregon, that would soon be fitted with a "green curtain," by which I think she meant the "extensive vertical garden" on the eighteen-story Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building with its massive "vegetated fins," the single largest use of stimulus money in the entire state.
And actually, it's kind of great. Still, I doubt many people are going to build their own vegetated fins, and anyway I was beginning to despair that nothing could stop the flow of self-praise until one of the three seniors from Unity raised her hand and politely interrupted.
Now, let me say that I already knew Jean Altomare, Amanda Nelson and Jamie Nemecek were special, but my guess is the bureaucrats hadn't figured that out. Unity is out in the woods, and these kids were majoring in things like wildlife conservation. They'd never had an encounter like this. It stood to reason that they'd be cowed. But they weren't.
One after another, respectfully but firmly, they asked a series of tough questions, and refused to be filibustered by yet another stream of administration-enhancing data. Here's what they wanted to know: if the administration was serious about spreading the word on renewable energy, why wouldn't it do the obvious thing and put solar panels on the White House? When the administrators proudly proffered a clipping from some interior page of the Washington Post about their "greening the government initiative," Amanda calmly pointed out that none of her neighbors read the Post and that, by contrast, the solar panels had made it onto David Letterman.
To their queries, the bureaucrats refused to provide any answer. At all. One kept smiling in an odd way and saying, "If reporters call and ask us, we will provide our rationale," but whatever it was, they wouldn't provide it to us.
It was all a little odd, to say the least. They refused to accept the Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with the students and the petition they'd brought with them. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point-blank said no. In a less than overwhelming gesture, they did, however, pass out Xeroxed copies of a 2009 memorandum from Vice President Biden about federal energy policy.
I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn't keep them back, because it's a tough thing to learn for the first time how politics can work.
If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action. As Jean Altomare told the New York Times, "We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet." And Amanda Nelson added, "I didn't expect I'd get to shake President Obama's hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn't seem to care."
Did I say I was impressed with these young women? I was more than impressed. Nobody I went to Harvard with would have handled it as powerfully as they did (maybe because they weren't looking for a job in the White House someday). A few hot tears were the right response, followed by getting on with the work.