Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech was political disaster, but oh if we’d only stuck to his plan …

In July 1979 the USA was gripped by the second of the 1970’s fake oil crises.  OPEC decided to give us a second lesson of its power to control the American populace by shutting down oil deliveries.  In the midst of that “crisis”, Carter gave this speech demonstrating why he lost to Reagan.  Carter talked to us in a depressing tone of voice about the need to fundamentally rethink how society operates, while Reagan talked to us of sunny days ahead.  The problem is that what Carter talked about is the real truth, and Reagan was blowing nonsensical poppycock ideas.

The speech took awhile to get going.  For some reason President Carter felt it necessary to spend the first 10 minutes going over statements about how badly he was viewed as a President.  But at around 13 minutes he talks about a real issue with not just America but the modern capitalistic system and its dependency on selling us more stuff every day.

The REAL Energy Crisis

The real energy crisis wasn’t that OPEC had shut off oil supplies.  The real energy crisis is twofold — first, that we feel an emotional dependency on buying more stuff as if that fills a hole in our soul — second, the inner energy of confidence that we can take on and solve big problems.

At the surface was the problem of the energy supply required to run the machines that run our society.  At the time that energy was primarily fossil fuels, and indeed Carter’s speech mostly focused on fossil fuel supplies.  He pushed for what’s now known as Fracking to tap into Shale supplies, other forms of unconventional gas and oil, to develop what’s now known as biofuels, and so forth.  And he also pushed for developing solar power, and famously it is Carter that first installed solar panels on the White House roof that Reagan de-installed when he came into office.

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All of that, though, is a surface issue.  There are deeper issues to solve that could make those problems irrelevant.


For example, the habit of owning too many things.  Do we really need all the stuff that fill our houses?  Our stores are filled with useless flimsy gadgets that can’t be repaired.  Do they provide any real human value?  No.

The gadgets serve a capitalistic purpose.  Buying more stuff is good for the corporations that sells us that stuff.  Selling more stuff produces the Profit that gives Shareholder value.  As an owner of stocks myself, I like well-run companies that produce prodigious dividends.  But in many cases those dividends are sourced from selling questionable products of questionable human value.

A common human need is to feel loved or cherished.  Modern capitalism has developed ingenious psychological ploys to manipulate needs of that sort.  You might end up buying a fake robotic dog, or a plaque of a dead fish that sings lullaby’s when you push a button, or boxes of chocolates, or boxes of beer, or whatever.  Whole squadrons of psychology researchers are studying human behavior solely for the purpose of manipulating our needs through advertising to sell us more stuff.

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The corporations are completely dependent on ever-increasing sales and profit.  In the stock market, companies with growing sales and profit are valued higher than companies with stagnant or shrinking sales and profit.  Therefore, corporate leadership has a fiduciary duty to do whatever required to keep consumers buying stuff.  Even when that means the corporation has to convince us to buy stuff we don’t need.

All that excess stuff we don’t need costs resources – energy – materials – etc – to manufacture, distribute, sell, use, and then dispose of.  In other words, the profits that gave shareholder value is driving the environmental and other crises we’re all facing.

If we collectively used less stuff per person, all kinds of issues would be resolved.  All kinds of environmental crises based on over-extraction of raw materials would be mitigated.  Consuming less fossil fuels would reduce atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gas issues, mitigating climate change.

The other big issue, the lack of will or confidence to tackle this sort of issue is more difficult to pin down and solve.  Obviously the way Carter talked about this was unattractive, and surely is what led to his failure to be reelected.  Reagan came in with rosy ideas of a bright future where we didn’t need to punish ourselves in the way Carter was saying.  But, as we’ve just seen, that also meant keeping the Economy going in the direction of selling us ever-larger piles of stuff we do not need.

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Because of the corporate fiduciary duty to always increase sales, corporate leaders have the motive to continually misdirect the population away from any idea of efficiency or keeping consumption at a reasonable level.  An example came during California’s “energy crisis” that drove Gov. Gray Davis out of office.  The solution offered then was to rely on energy efficiency to reduce electricity demand keeping the electrical grid in balance.  California has decades of experience pushing for energy efficiency programs, and has one of the lowest per-capita electricity consumption rates in the country while enjoying a high standard of living.  At the national level folks like Vice President Dick Cheney roundly criticized such ideas and suggested Americans shouldn’t live like Europeans do with cold houses or some such.

Having spent a fair amount of time in Europe, I know that Europeans generally live very well on a far lower per-capita resource consumption than do Americans.  For example most European cities are built to encourage pedestrians and mass transit rather than driving individually-owned cars.  That by itself is far more efficient in energy and resource consumption than the American model of individually driven cars.

While this speech was flawed and did not serve Carter’s political position — he has some excellent ideas.  Unfortunately he went from those points to then promote technological developments we now call Fracking and Tar Sands and Mountain Top Removal.  If he’d been able to find a way to sell us on the core idea, the over-consumption pattern, we’d all be a lot better off.


About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

One Comment

  1. David, this column is heart-felt on your part, just as the speech was heart-felt on Carter’s part. But while one might agree for any number of spiritual/social/communal/thoughtful/considerate reasons that we should not over-consume — and I agree that over-consumption is self-evidently a damaging path to nothing good — I don’t think it was the biggest problem America faced then, and faces now. I believe the problem is the failure to be honest, understand the trajectory of technology, and plot policy.

    Some accuse technologists of not understanding people. Nonsense. Technology is only ever the means to an end, and that end is not the purview of technologists.

    More and better is available through technology. We should have then, and certainly should now, do everything possible to promote the development and application and use of technology. Energy, environmentalism, life quality and lifespan, leisure, self-actualization… whatever it is you want, it is likely to be available to you at the present or near future through technology.

    To me, the only odd thing is how this is always so manifestly true, and yet it is so rarely the ambition of politicians to embrace and plan and guide the process of our use of technology. I blame the problem on ignorant and backward-looking leaders and the people who voted for them. But even a simple survey with check-off boxes just asking “what do you want” would be a start in developing the right direction for plotting the future harnessing of technology.



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