Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ownership of the 21st Century

Americans are proud to call the 20th century "the American Century". They certainly came of age in that century and led the world.

I remember JFK boldly announcing that "before this decade is out we propose to put a man on the moon" and they went ahead and did it.

But since the late 1960s I have seen very little evidence of American leadership. Sure, they did a lot in high tech, but the seeds of that were sown in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't see any great technology coming out of the US in 1970s and beyond.

Here is the last bit of an article in the Atlantic magazine that gives evidence that the future belongs to China...
China’s cooperation with the United States on coal is good news for the world. If the two countries had decided to make this another arena for demonstrating their respective toughness—if, as at the failed Copenhagen talks last winter, they had mainly exchanged accusations about who was more to blame for emissions problems—they would have guaranteed that the problems could not be solved. If that cooperation breaks down, Julio Friedmann said, “we’ll end up paying twice as much to get the same learnings—and delaying the technology on both sides by another decade.” Both sides seem to have looked for ways to keep the cooperation going. They have not been in the newspapers, but they deserve recognition for attempting to do the world’s work.

But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct.

The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.

The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will.

“The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems.

“No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.”
Personally I would prefer that this didn't happen. But pretty well my whole life has been spent watching the US in decline. From my very personal perspective, it started with the US's inability to be honest with themselves about Vietnam and what a waste of blood and treasure that was and how the only real rationale for that carnage was so that a series of US presidents could claim they didn't "lose SE Asia on my watch".

I saw the scandals of the Watergate era and a power mad Republican president who was caught and sent packing, but I then watched how he weaseled his way back into favour and died with full honours. I watched as Ronald Reagan sold the American people on another round of Republican snake oil. And it is culminating now in a Congress frozen by ideological fanatics unwilling to give an inch on their insane "shrink government" ideology and their constant "tax cut, tax cut, tax cut" mentality. It is a country where when I was a kid I saw a heroic effort to "end poverty" but I have lived to see poverty come back with a vengance with far more homelessness and hunger than I ever saw in the 1950s or 60s.

I've seen a country become fabulously wealthy but the bottom 90% forced to stand outside the restaurant while the top 1% feast and feast, gorging themselves on luxuries and conspicuous consumption. But this very, very rich country is cutting back on education, on health care, on old age benefits, and on government services. Can't afford them! Of course you can't if you let the billionaires and millionaires continually have more, and more, and more.

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