Political Totems

Which do you hate: solar panels or natural gas? (If you’re Amish, you should hate both. Then you should post on the message board why exactly you’re on the Internet what with being Amish. Then send me a bale of cheese.)

Over the last year I’ve noticed that a surprising amount of Americans hate one or the other. I have a theory: solar panels and natural gas are totems. In anthropology, a “totem” is a symbol that serves as an emblem for a group of people. In our country, affiliation to one technology or the other quickly signifies your political tribe. In short, Republicans like things which explode and make loud noises (gas, petroleum, bombs) and Democrats like things which are techy, eco-friendly and generally don’t work very well (solar panels, wind power, automobiles powered by “hope”).

Non-American readers will probably be a little confused by the above. Couldn’t people like both? If you lived in Arizona, for instance, where it’s always sunny, couldn’t you buy a solar panel for your hot water heater, use natural gas for your stove, and employ nuclear power for your killer robot?

Of course you can. But a lot of people have knee-jerk, emotional reactions to energy sources.

Small government proponents get angry about subsidies to things like Solandra. Taxpayer dollars were wasted on a failed endeavor. They’re skeptical when the government coddles pet energy projects, because government bureaucrats might not allocate resources efficiently as investors, or they might reward their green energy supporters.

But there’s nothing evil about solar panels or wind power—it’s all part of a national energy portfolio. Yet I’ve met people who get angry when hearing about alternate energy at all. Solar-powered anything signifies allegiance to The Left. They hear “solar” and they think “hippies.”

Conversely, why do Democrats get worked up over natural gas? America’s carbon footprint has declined recently because of natural gas, which is far cleaner than coal or petroleum. Despite hype in the media, gas also has an astoundingly good safety record. It’s cheaper. It’s domestic energy. I could go on.

There are good and bad arguments to all energy sources. But both get muddled in emotion, because either energy source becomes a cultural totem. It’s important that Americans look past the feelings which accompany solar panels or natural gas, if we’re ever going to have cost-effective, environmentally safe killer robots.

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