How Does A Culture War Start?

How does an issue become political?  I have recently been thinking a lot about solar power, which I believe to be a systematically overlooked opportunity that is gearing up to knock the socks off the economy.  Partially this is simply due to the competitive situation – as the global economy has slumped, fossil fuels have been cheaper than they probably ever will be again.  However, I think a large part of it is truly political.  Conservatives have been mocking solar ever since Jimmy Carter put panels on the White House roof, and I think many are simply temperamentally incapable of considering solar power as a business proposition instead of a symbol.

Digression: You can take this post and substitute in “liberal” and “nuclear” if you wish  I think there are business reasons to be dubious of nuclear power’s future – extreme capital investments, heavy government involvement, and simple cost-effectiveness.  However, many liberals have the same tic with nuclear as conservatives have with solar – they can only relate to it as a symbol (Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island) rather than an object of cost-benefit analysis.

Energy policy debate in the United States has taken on the cast of the culture wars.  Solar energy isn’t just an unwise investment – it’s un-American.  Conservative opinion leaders made a production this year out of elaborately flouting the admittedly-dumb “Earth Hour” and maximizing their energy use. Drill, baby, drill!  Keystone XL!  Conservatives ought to celebrate solar: it is a high-tech wonder of entrepreneurship, which will liberate us from Foreign Countries Full Of Sand And Terrorists, plus get Big Government Utility off our back.  Instead, somewhat perversely, they have come to glorify the act of digging filthy shit out of the ground and setting it on fire.

In short, tribalism rather than cost-benefit calculations dominate an issue which ought to be pretty oriented around narrow economics rather than any sort of value clash.

The question of how this became a cultural issue mystifies me; it is not true of other contested environmental issues like the Clean Air Act.  There are a few good hypotheses.  I think “Jimmy Carter liked it” is a more serious argument than it sounds.  Would you want Jimmy Carter to be the face of your brand?  So too is the structural argument that oil companies fund the Republican Party, but the causal chain to culture war is not clear. Unless you believe that material interests dictate policy stances and that cultural values spring up to justify the policies, which is a good Marxist take appropriate for May Day.

Business issues that become political are probably good places to look for opportunities.  They will likely be systematically undervalued by around half the population, and I think even many moderate voters have a pretty negative opinion of solar.  I would suggest this is more true of solar than nuclear, because solar has a clear downward price trend whereas the nuclear industry’s issues show no sign of being resolved.  But then again I’m a liberal – so I would say that, wouldn’t I?


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