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Why don’t Americans care about energy?

It’s a simple question, accompanied by an unmistakable twinge of gaucherie. As an engineer-in-training, I spend my time calculating structurally admissible conditions in class, building prototypes in lab, and analyzing scalability of renewable energy sources as a UROP. Somewhere in the midst of p-sets, exams, tooling, and activities, I think we all tend to forget that we represent only a small fraction of American students, albeit a well-informed one.

Now what about the general populace? Taking a leaf out of Jay Leno’s book, it would be relatively simple to stroll down Beacon Street asking random pedestrians questions about energy. The answers, I’d gather, would be relatively uniform. It is a sad fact of our culture that while teenagers and adults alike grovel at the altar of Perez Hilton and US Weekly, most Americans display little concern for energy efficiency.

Wake up, people. Melting down Taylor Swift’s VMA isn’t going to solve global warming. We are dangling on the cusp of one the most difficult obstacles our civilization has faced since incipiency. So why not slide the circumstances to our favor? Clearly the American public will not take a significant interest in energy given the current sense of urgency (and no, watching/talking about/sleeping through “An Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t quite count). Let’s cut our losses and move on. The energy crisis is not an easily solved problem, nor one that will rectify itself automatically. To make a genuine impact, Americans must collectively dismount the La-Z-Boy, toss the TV remote, and take notice.

Easier said than done? Possibly, but the key to this situation is to change the national mindset. Historically, we are a nation of innovators: men and women who loathed the status quo enough to do (key word: do) something unprecedented about it. We once chucked a load of tea into Boston Harbor, why not do it again… with fossil fuel?

There must be a way to again unite Americans, this time under the mantle of energy efficiency. The only way to bridge the didactic divide between enlightened researchers, tiresomely bureaucratic policy-makers, and working-class families is to provide a legitimate incentive. Not a letter-writing campaign, nor a cheesy public service announcement. Why not a significant tax rebate for families who own hybrid cars? Fitting newly constructed developments with solar panels and geothermal pumps and allowing apartment residents to make use of renewable power? Charging an energy tax to corporations and individuals who fail to comply with emission standards?

A better approach would be somewhat more subtle. Monetary incentives are attractive, but it is most imperative that Americans are presented with viable energy alternatives in an everyday setting. The only way that we can discharge our dependency on fossil fuels is if equally practicable alternatives actually exist. Thanks to engineers and researchers, it should eventually be feasible for America to implement scalable solutions in both domestic and industrial settings.

What we need now is for the government to prioritize energy research. Fit all government and academic buildings with solar panels and geothermal pumps, so that the next generation of students, engineers, and policy-makers will be accustomed to a lifestyle of clean energy. Offer additional grants to labs working to refine and distill biofuels, develop powerful offshore wind turbines, or construct more efficient solar power systems. Pay attention to details and simple solutions. And accept no substitutes for clean energy.

Next time you use your laptop, take a look at some satellite pictures of Earth. Can you think of a reason why the United States glows from space? I dare you to do something about it.

Nina Sinatra is a member of the Class of 2012