It’s a shame that two people best suited to fix America’s energy problems died before the age of steam locomotives.
Thankfully, we can still learn something from Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
It’s reckless to speculate about how these men would respond to issues in modern American politics, but we can learn from their examples – particularly when there are direct parallels between our situations and theirs.
Franklin was a genius. His mind was arguably the greatest we have ever produced in terms of grasping a problem and providing an economical, practical solution.
Franklin was able to achieve this because he was a talented scientist, entrepreneur and statesman. As a scientist, he was world-class.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin, the chemist and Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach puts Franklin’s accomplishments in context: “His work on electricity was recognized as ushering in a scientific revolution comparable to those wrought by Newton in the previous century or by Watson and Crick in ours.”
But he was more than just a dazzling scientist – Franklin was able to translate his knowledge into inventions that improved everyday life.
Franklin’s interest in the science of heat led to the Franklin stove, which increased the safety and fuel-efficiency of wood heat. His studies of evaporative cooling can be appreciated today by anyone who has enjoyed a swamp cooler on a hot day.
In 1784, Franklin suggested an idea we recognize today as daylight savings. In a letter to the editor in the Journal of Paris, he calculated the money which could be saved by using sunlight rather than candles to light homes.
As an entrepreneur, he had a keen interest in increasing efficiency and economy. As a statesman, he knew how to argue persuasively. We need precisely this sort of “perfect storm” of intellectual agility today.
Innovation and efficiency in energy use represent only one side of our energy problem. We also need a deep understanding of how the issue impacts American interests. For this, we turn to Washington.
Washington had the preternatural ability to know what was right for America, in both his public and private life.
Consider the economic struggle he faced at Mount Vernon. The historian and biographer Joseph Ellis describes Washington’s finances as “a stark statement of Washington’s dependence on invisible men in faraway places for virtually his entire way of life.”
Washington, of course, was not tied up by foreign oil. Bound in the traditional colonial economy, Washington and many other gentlemen farmers relied too heavily on cash crops like tobacco. London merchants controlled the price they received for their crop and the price of the goods they purchased for their homes.
Washington knew better than to let his success be governed by overseas merchants whose interests conflicted with his own. As Ellis describes, he turned his plantations into more self-sufficient enterprises, producing a diverse array of crops, products and other ventures that bypassed London.
Washington understood his role in the colonial American economy. He broke economic ties when they became a threat to his independence. For him, this was not a personal virtue – it was simultaneously smart politics, good business, and deeply patriotic.
For all of Iraq’s importance in the upcoming elections, there is another world beyond its borders demanding our attention. Our use of energy links us intimately in the emerging global economy in which energy use and efficiency will be a critical issue. If our leaders fail to see this, we will lose a major battle of the coming century.
Any presidential ticket that can muster half of the genius and business sense of Franklin and come close to matching Washington’s sense of politics and economy deserves our vote.
Further, these leaders should serve as a benchmark against which all candidates can be measured. The further we depart from their values and methods of evaluating decisions, the weaker we become.
Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology graduate student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org