Thoughts of an Orwell fan

I’m a George Orwell fanatic. I own, and display proudly in my office, every book he wrote (Homage to Catalonia is the best), every Orwell (1903-1950) biography, and every critical study of his work. I also have the four-volume edited collection of his works, compiled by his widow, Sonia Orwell, and their friend and collaborator Ian Angus.

Over the past 20-some years I have traditionally written an annual commentary based on Orwell’s powerful 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Now’s the time to again delve into Orwell’s views on the nature of writing, and the relationship of writing and politics and truth.

In a recent blog posting, I noted that Princeton physicist Will Happer referenced Orwell’s seminal essay on the relationship of writing and thinking, addressing the climate change orthodoxy that now prevails in policy circles. Orwell wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Happer was discussing why Vice President Al Gore fired him at energy research chief at the Department of Energy because Happer didn’t buy into Gore’s view of global warming.

Today, it strikes me that there is a largely unexamined orthodoxy when it comes to modern energy policy. Every day, from almost every figure, starting with Barack Obama (for whom I voted and enthusiastically backed for president) and going down the line to energy secretary Steve Chu, congressmen and senators, lesser figures, and media nonentities, we hear about “clean energy” and “green jobs” and “smart grids” and “carbon footprints” and “sustainability.”

What, Orwell might ask, do these terms and phrases mean? Are there definitions here that make distinctions, and allow us to rationally consider these distinctions in opposition to one another and alternatives? I haven’t found them.

Why is wind power cleaner than nuclear power? Why is manufacturing wind turbines more virtuous than mining coal? What’s sustainable about geothermal energy, when the underground steam can run out, and why is it better than hydropower? In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”

To my mind, these modern energy idols are what Orwell described as “dying metaphors,” or, as he wrote, “metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

“Green,” “Clean,” “Smart,” “Sustainable.” All, to my mind, literary frauds that distract us from the real world of energy policy that protects the public interest (I admit, that’s another undefined principle, but I don’t have room here to discuss it). I wrote an article in MANAGING POWER about green and sustainable supply chains. I don’t really have a clue what those terms mean. I asked the purveyors of the studies for definitions, without success. I wrote the article anyhow, figuring that it was probably important, and flagged my concerns about the definition of terms. I hope that stimulates a response.

My suspicion is that these lazy phrases have become marketing terms, aimed at garnering unthinking attention, and financial and political support. But once the curtain is drawn on “green,” “clean,” “smart,” and “sustainable,” we will find a little old man with a jelly belly and a bald pate, call him “Oz,” behind the curtain and at the controls.

We need to focus on clearly defined, measurable, terms to guide our energy polices, not vague and feel-good generalities devoid of on-the-ground reality. We are on the verge of committing vast sums of your taxes and mine on terms and conditions and goals that we can’t define. That’s not, in the words of the food channel, “good eats.”