Is Obama serious about saving the planet?

Posted: April 27, 2009 in environment, society
Tags: , , ,


Well, let’s not talk about Obama’s affiliations here to his campaign donors, like the US coal and oil industries, or the same connections the Democrats have, which make both of them of course have obligations that already will go against any radical changes America needs to make to start working towards ecological sustainability. Let’s look instead at Obama’s vision and values which he claims to hold, at least at some of them. Let’s see what they are and how they relate to the environmental promises made by him.

A good place to investigate might be Obama’s inaugural address which, on the surface, seems to contain commitments to radical change and a shift in values. Here are some of the quotes with which he still mesmeries social justice and environmental movements in America:

  • “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
  • “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
  • The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.”
  • “[earlier generations] understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
  • “we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense”
  • “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
  • “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” [Source: Ecoglobe]

The question is: what do all these lofty words really mean? Given that Obama so far had only 100 days in office, do we have to wait for an answer till let’s say he’s half way through his term? Or can we already find either answers or clear indications for how to interpret those high-flying ideas? Let’s take a look at the White House website to see what Obama’s agenda says about ‘Energy and the Environment’, the only item that seems to have some direct link to ecological sustainability.


given Obama’s pre-election campaign and his inaugural speech, this agenda should stand for radical change. Radical change means questioning the status quo. If there was some doubt whether his first address as president stood for radical change, for questioning the status quo, the official White House agenda removes that doubt: change for Obama means tinkering around the edges. His vision already was not to “apologize for our way of life, nor waver in its defense” and the agenda confirms that he keeps supporting it. He wanted to “lay a new foundation for growth” but his agenda does not show any questioning even of the nature of growth. He pledges to put an end to worn-out dogmas yet certainly in ecological terms he still stands for the old ones – of not addressing population growth and defining growth as economic growth. He talks about “rolling back the specter of a warming planet” yet his agenda uses the same old paradigm of technological fixes as a strategy. He made a pledge to the people of poor nations, to work alongside of them to”nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds” yet the whole agenda on the White House website doesn’t even mention these poor. It’s all spin.

Let’s look again at the growth issue. If you don’t focus on population growth, more people will consume more resources and using more resources means producing more detrimental effects on the ecological environmental – climate and otherwise. The exact same logic applies to championing an unquestioned economic growth grwoth paradigm. Building more infrastructure for the next economic upturn, shifting reliance on oil imports to a small degree to renewable sources, applying some other technical fixes (such as hybrid cars) and making a lukewarm commitment to long-term greenhouse gas reduction will neither turn climate change around nor the ecological destruction caused by insensitive economic pursuits. Not questioning the nature of growth means doing business as usual.

What needs to happen is that we address the essentials, and number one on that list is the reduction of our ecological footprints. That means radically eliminating population growth and questioning our addiction to our luxurious lifestyles. Consumer goods production in particular, goods that we want rather than need, depletes the planet’s non-renewable resources at an unsustainable rate; that includes raw materials for goods production, energy generation, infrastructure, transportation and the military machine. So, to achieve a radical reduction of our ecological footprint we therefore need to begin discussing options like

  • focusing on acquiring things we really need rather than non-essential marketers’ dream products
  • localising food and goods production to satisfy our essential needs, creating local jobs and drastically reducing the need for a national and international transportation infrastructure
  • localising energy production with primary reliance on renewable energy; reducing the use of energy hungry non-essential goods and products
  • replacing the addiction to cars with a commitment to public transport, bicycles and walking
  • decentralising political power by strengthening a focus on local democracy
  • closing the huge income and wealth gaps through creating a society that shifts its values away from our material obsession towards true happiness based on cooperation, community life, fulfilling relationships, mutual respect, creative expression , etc. – to name a few

If Obama would have put on the table a vision like this one or at least core elements of it, I would have had a bit more confidence that he is serious about saving the planet and that he really means that he is concerned about the future for our children’s children. But while some deluded greenies might celebrate that Michelle O is growing organic veggies, it takes a bit more to convince me that the 44th American president has become a hero who will save the the planet.

Update: let’s not think that people aren’t willing to re-evaluate what they consider is essential or a luxury – Latest survey: what consumer goods can Americans live without sheds some light on a possible answer.


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