September 21, 2008 at 7:00AM
by Jim DiPeso
Banking panics are supposed to be a forgotten relic of the 19th century, when laissez-faire reigned supreme and the federal government was composed mainly of clerks toiling away in a quiet Southern town by the Potomac River.
But theres no getting away from human fears, which set off the old-fashioned banking panic that swept through the financial sector last week.
When the economy is fishtailing and the mentality is to circle the wagons, fear is taking hold. Which is not a sound environment for making decisions that have long-term environmental benefits.
The tendency is to deal with the short-term crisis and forget about long-term consequences. Understandable, but not always smart.
Heres a sign of the times: A survey of chief marketing officers released this month by Duke Universitys Fuqua School of Business shows that cause-related marketing has plunged to the bottom of the priority list for marketing messages.
Marketing officers increasingly believe that financially-stressed customers are more interested in getting a good deal on products than in hearing that products are nice to polar bears.
The Maslow hierarchy has kicked in. As a marketing VP for Unilever told Advertising Age magazine recently: If people are struggling to buy food or put their kids through college, theyre going to see (environmental benefits) as a nice thing to do, but not essential.
Loss of traction for environmental benefits may have implications for how the federal government approaches energy and climate policy next year. If energy security a short-term imperative trumps reducing greenhouse gas emissions a long-term problem then a push to speed up development of oil shale or coal-based liquid fuels could trample cautionary messages about delaying such development unless and until weve mastered the trick of large-scale carbon sequestration.
Part of the problem with energy is that the politics of the issue lends itself to short-term spasms of risky action rather than a long-term strategy of careful investment. Energy is a technically obtuse topic that is out of sight and out of mind for most voters until our bad habits and geopolitical vulnerabilities plunge us into another crisis of high prices and supply uncertainties.
As author Paul Roberts wrote in his 2004 book, The End of Oil: The only time U.S. politicians hear from voters about energy is during power outages or price spikes that is, when people think theyre paying too much for energy circumstances not entirely conducive to development of a national energy policy aimed at reducing energy demand.
And now, the federal government is moving to take on huge new obligations to clear bad mortgage debt off banks books. Eventually, maybe, the feds meaning we taxpayers will get some of the money back, but in 2009, the politics may be stacked against a burdened federal government pumping large sums into fast-tracking low-emission energy technologies.
Given the changing circumstances, clean energy advocates ought to think about supplementing their ongoing activities with a long-term program to educate voters about the geological and economic realities of oil dependence, and about the dangers of locking into new carbon-heavy energy resources to replace the old.