The Sputnik Moment and Environmentalism

Categories: International Relations

There is some interesting language around the fact that, last year, China invested $120 billion in green energy, while the US invested only $20 billion (this, despite the fact that China has less than 1/2 the GDP of the US).  Secretary Chu of the Department of Energy described the situation as the US’ “Sputnik Moment,” indicating that the US was in danger of being left behind in what – as indicated by the language – is going to be an ‘arms race’ in green tech.  Senior officials in the Obama administration are described as “worried” about this development, and concerned about the loss of US dominance in this sector.

Now, it is true that the specter of an ‘arms race’ in green tech seems like a good thing.  Certainly, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 30%, in large part due to China’s investment.  Moreover, the idea that the US will start spending in R&D in this area is – given the fact that the US is one of the top per-capita emitter of GHGs (pdf) – an attractive one.

However, I can’t help but feel dismayed at the idea that something as vital to global security, combating climate change, has become a source of conflict and tension, and one described by language invoking the Cold War and domination.  The Cold War was characterized by a winner-take-all, zero-sum attitude, with minimal scope for cooperation.  The idea that international relations should be driven primarily by this mindset, in large part, is why the environment is in its current state.  Development at all costs, the quest for natural resources, the dependence on oil for military readiness.  Sure, the framework of international conflict may have some environmental benefits, but it doesn’t strike me as an especially sustainable one.

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.