Sputnik vs. Global Warming

I was checking out this interview on innovation with the consistently successful Judy Estrin (for more, see my Big Think post).

When she gives advice to the president, she talks up energy independence and fighting global warming, invokes Sputnik and talks about how the nation rallied behind the space program. Coincidentally, I’m about a third of the way through Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.” Wolfe’s book so far isn’t really about test pilots and astronauts, but an anthropology of national totem-building, and how America’s leaders and the press became bewitched by “a modern, i.e., technological, astrology.” The program, he argues, benefited from the press culture of the 1950s, which Wolfe archly calls “a great colonial animal…made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950s (as in the late 1970s)…the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings!”

It’s a little disconcerting to see Wolfe hack at the mythology of of the U.S. response to Sputnik, which is one of those crises, along with the great wars we’ve been in, and the Depression, that define our character as a country. Wolfe basically is saying the Sputnik alarm was a false one, and we were already well on our way to having our own satellites to launch, if a little behind. It suggests that America only functions when a panic button gets pressed. Otherwise, we are mired in our petty everyday conflicts.

I hope in this case that he’s wrong, because it’s obvious that energy independence and fighting global warming are slogs, not dramatic things that can be shown on television.

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