During my 31-year career in daily news, where we wrote mostly about things that went wrong, I witnessed a shift from an American society that believed in exciting possibilities and looked to the skies to one mired in doubt, staring down at smart phones for the latest bad news, and expecting short-term results from someone else’s initiatives.
Thankfully, some people and organizations still have vision.
When RMI marked its 25th anniversary, Amory Lovins urged supporters to imagine a world run on clean energy, “where the war against the Earth is over … where elegant frugality turns scarcities and conflicts in energy, water, land, and minerals into enough, for all, for ever.”
Five years later, RMI and its supporters are working vigorously to make that world real by implementing the blueprint laid out last year in Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era.
Of course, this isn’t easy or immediate.
James Newcomb, an RMI program director, describes the goal of the Institute’s Next Generation Electricity initiative, a linchpin in the Reinventing Fire vision, as an effort to “change the world’s largest machine,” the U.S. electricity system. Such aims are wonderfully audacious in a time plagued by a dream deficit.
I crave such monumental thinking. So, motivated in part by my bout with throat cancer in 2010, I seized the opportunity late last year to move away from Detroit’s industrial-strength air quality to the Rockies to help spread RMI’s vision of a clean, safe, prosperous Earth.
As I told friends and colleagues about RMI’s goal of an America largely free of fossil fuels by 2050, they universally expressed extreme doubt—even my friend who installs solar systems in homes and converted a pickup for his business to electric power.
Far, far too many people today are quick to find a list of reasons something can’t happen rather than dreaming of what can be. And if it doesn’t happen instantly, well, it has failed. This is a change that has crept upon us in my lifetime.
This is, after all, the country that went to the moon. Man arrived there less than seven years after President John F. Kennedy in 1962 set the goal to ensure and fulfill “our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others.”
Reinventing Fire calls for a dramatic, difficult, and critical change in 38 years.
In 1962, people would have believed nearly anything could be accomplished by the end of that century. My parents, for example, grew up without electricity in their rural Nebraska homes and by the end of their lives had traveled halfway across the country through the air. For them, the idea of converting the energy system in a generation and a half would hardly seem far-fetched.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, advocating for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, bemoans today’s lack of vision. “You remember the ’60s and ’70s,” he said last year on Real Time With Bill Maher. “You didn’t have to go more than a week before there was an article in Life magazine: ‘The Home of Tomorrow,’ ‘The City of Tomorrow,’ ‘Transportation of Tomorrow.’ All that ended in the 1970s after we stopped going to the moon. We stopped dreaming.”
The dream of RMI and its supporters—widely shared and in fact being implemented by many companies and, organizations and even some countries—brightens the future with energy from above the ground and creates economic opportunity. It enables us to look upward again, to the sun and the wind, it invites innovation, and demands Lovins’s and RMI’s vision of applied hope.
Doubters quickly list the reasons it can’t be done: Oil is too entrenched, renewables can’t compete without subsidies, electricity can’t be stored, government won’t make the needed shifts in policy. Of course oil will run out; renewables increasingly compete unsubsidized; electric vehicles can, in fact, store power and feed it back to the system. Finally, and most important, history provides ample evidence of society-changing revolutions led by business.
The auto industry arose and changed our culture and economy without any up-front government help. The information age, abetted by the space program and other government work, has changed our lives through private-sector innovation.
Five years ago, Lovins said this “astonishing world we are all gradually creating together … [is] being built before our eyes.” This summer, as RMI embarks on its second 30 years, our Research and Collaboration staff will find new opportunities and partners with which to make breakthroughs. We will seek and tell stories of businesses and organizations boldly stepping into the new energy economy, making the vision real. The work our supporters enable will continue to allow us to show the way and change minds.
This idea of a clean, sustainable Earth and economy is no less urgent and no less possible than Kennedy’s call. We must make these changes today, as JFK said 50 years ago, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”