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Why a Sputnik moment?

January 26th, 2011 · 1 Comment

In the State of the Union address, President Obama referred back to President Kennedy’s call for America to go to the moon.

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

Reading … and rereading … the address, I have a simply question:  Why?  Why is “this our generation’s Sputnik moment”?

In paragraphs before these, the President speaks to “sustaining the American dream” and American innovation.  He speaks to other nations investment in education and science and the increasingly fierce economic competition around the world.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us.

So, is our “Sputnik moment” that we are economically and intellectually threatened to the point where we risk catastrophe?   The President’s next words seem to belie this:

Remember – for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.

That doesn’t sound like the need to create a massive national response to a perceived existential threat. Yet, what were the words that immediately preceded the Sputnik moment comments?

Just think of all the good jobs – from manufacturing to retail – that have come from those breakthroughs.

Thus, this is about jobs?  Our “Sputnik moment” is the need to get Americans back to work?

The “Sputnik moment” comments immediately preceded an extensive section on clean energy, with a call for 80 percent “clean energy” (the words need to be in quotations because the President, yet again, included “clean coal” in a clean energy discussion) by 2035.

We’re issuing a challenge.  We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

And it comes back to jobs:

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

Okay, we need to invest in clean energy research and development so that we can have “clean energy jobs”?

Is that the reason for investing in “clean energy”?  That our Sputnik moment is the need to create jobs in a competitive international landscape?

To be clear, job creation matters and there is a huge opportunity space for job creation with clean energy jobs.

And, the truth is simple: other nations are cleaning America’s clock when it comes to moving out with clean energy opportunities. America, which was once the global leader in wind and solar and rail and …, trails other nations in investments in terms of research, development, and deployment.

The 21st century, however, does not require a clean-energy revolution first and foremost as a job creation path.  This is a very real element of the opportunity but this is not the reason.

There are fundamental truths which the President chose not to engage … the fundamental truths that should be the clarion call to arms for a clean-energy revolution … fundamental truths that should drive a Sputnik moment:

  • Peak Oil:  The era of cheap and easy oil almost certainly is nearing an end.  In the face of growing demand and tightening (and, likely, falling) supply, oil prices will inexorably grow over time but with severe price fluctuations. The ever-increasing price, the fluctuating prices, and the tighter supply leading to growing shortages (think gas lines of oil crises …) will cause increasingly severe economic turmoil. This can threaten our prosperity, our food supply, and …  The United States has not seriously addressed our, as George W Bush put it, “oil addiction” even as President after President from Richard Nixon to the President has called for ending our reliance on foreign oil.  With each day that passes, our situation becomes more dire and “Drill, Baby, Drill” is not a solution.
  • Climate Change: From devastating Russian fires, to record heat temperatures in country after country, to Pakistani and Australian floods, to disrupting American agricultural production, to a very warm Arctic (in part because much of Europe and the United States have gotten Arctic chills — at this moment), to melting glaciers around the world, to … humanity is putting an ever-increasingly heavy thumb on the planetary balance.  Despite anti-science screaming distorting the discussion, the reality of climate disruption due to human activity is not some loony hypothesis but Scientific Theory just as is the Theory of Gravity.  We need to change our fossil-foolish ways (and other things …), rapidly, or face catastrophe.

As the Sputnik flew overhead, many of America’s youth were sent under their desks as they would be for bomb drills.  The Sputnik — combined with atomic weapons to put on intercontinental missiles — represented an existential threat to the American people.  The call to go to the moon, President Kennedy’s call for leadership, responded to and built on America’s perception of this threat to our very existence.

Both Peak Oil and Climate Change represent not just plausible, but increasingly substantive potential existential threats for America and the American people.  Yet, neither merited mention last evening.

Why does America (and the globe) face a Sputnik moment?  Because there are real threats out there. Threats to our very existence. Menaces with substance that will, if we do not address them, will almost certainly overwhelm us and cause ever-increasingly severe devastation. Threats that we can and must respond to and surmount.  And, we can address both with the same policies and approaches — while also creating tremendous clean energy job opportunities.  We face a stark choice: do nothing and face catastrophe or act with clarity and alacrity and create prosperity.  Address, seriously, peak oil and climate change or …

Yes, we do face a Sputnik moment — even if the President didn’t explain why.


  • Joe Romm, at Climate Progress, examined the clean-energy portions of the President’s speech with a stark highlighting of the absence of “climate change” from the speech:
  • The good news: Barack Obama delivered a powerful State of the Union speech advocating an aggressive clean energy strategy (text here). And he acknowledged a fundamental truth: advances in clean energy “will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.” Research and development by itself is ineffectual — hence the need for the standard.

    The bad news: The President could not bring himself to utter the words “climate change” or “global warming.” These omissions were depressingly predictable and thus, predictably, depressing to climate hawks.

  • The Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, gave a speech re a Sptutnik moment last fall.
  • When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now. From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate. As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place.”

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Tags: Obama Administration · President Barack Obama

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