Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
Did you tune into Obama’s jobs speech last Thursday night? Hopefully, you were too busy putting in unpaid overtime at your office. Or maybe you didn’t give a damn because you’ve been out there looking for a job, shooting your portfolio into a black hole for months and months.
If you did tune in you probably noticed that the word “green” was conspicuously absent.
Did Obama forget about the green economy he has been touting since his campaign? This is a deliberate and strategic move to move away from an over-emphasis on green as the key to economic recovery.
As a pragmatist, he understands that for the immediate future green is not yet a big enough factor to have a significant impact on jobs. Is this about failed leadership, as recent articles in Forbes and The New York Times suggest? Or is it really about a failure at the core of our culture? Perhaps it’s trying to do too much with too little too soon. If the Obama administration is guilty of anything it is of being too optimistic and, yes, hopeful. The culture, with all of its working and non-working machinery, was not ready for big green to be pushed into the mainstream.
Let’s go way back to 2008-2009. Remember the green economy, green jobs, green infrastructure? Remember Van Jones, then head of Oakland’s Green for All, being appointed Obama’s green jobs czar? Did anyone notice that? Many of us with green tendencies were in a state of rapture. We could see it coming around the corner, gaining an edge on those melting polar caps. Even Al Gore seemed happy.
The speech, besides trying to not draw too much attention to all the missteps and failures that have plagued the Administration’s green initiatives, also signals a shift away from the state-sponsored green euphoria that may have led to those failures in the first place.
It stresses a more pragmatic approach rooted in the fundamentals of broader and deeper economic forces. This is the sort of pragmatism the business world has been embracing as it tackles the issue of green. Just take a look at Greenbiz.com, for example.
Green has not yet attained the status of a core principal in American culture. To achieve this it has to be pragmatic. We may shop green, but we do not live it. No, not yet. Not when entire voting blocks and their leaders still question the validity of climate change.
To become intrinsic to our culture the green movement has to be framed in solid and irrefutable economic terms. Had Van Jones had not been pushed out by conservative opponents it’s possible the Obama camp would have had more ammunition to fight the green fight on the economic and policy front. However, one suspects that Van Jones, for all his experience in this arena, did not possess all the answers. Applying a local NGO model to a national scale in the midst of an economic crisis is bound to lead to failures. But the failures are important in moving the conversation onto the national stage.
When green gets pushed to the forefront of the political and economic agenda what is revealed is the systemic inability of our culture and political system to actualize it on a mass scale. It’s still largely grassroots, point by point, measure by measure, and for architects, building by building. But someone had to push it to the national level and Obama has succeeded in making this part of the mathematics of the economy. Despite the short-term failure of the so-called green economy, it will be a key issue in the 2012 elections and will remain part of the economic debates.
Maybe Americans aren’t the ones building the solar panels. We can’t do it cheap enough. But we can be the ones installing them, designing better, more efficient ones, designing them as integrated into our architecture. In the meantime we have to fight the economic fight, convince people that green works…even if it hasn’t put us all to work just yet.
Next week: How the Great Recession has helped redefine what a green economy means.
Guy Horton writes on the business, politics, and culture of architecture. He is a frequent contributor to Metropolis, GOOD, Architectural Record and other design publications. His new book, co-authored with Sherin Wing, is titled, The Real Architect's Handbook. You can follow Guy on Twitter @guyhorton.
I write THE CRIT, Archinect's new series on criticism. I also co-author CONTOURS, Archinect's featured column on the culture, politics, and business of architecture. I'm a frequent contributor to Metropolis Magazine, GOOD Magazine, Architectural Record, The Architect's Newspaper, and Architect ...