A few weeks ago a good idea started weaving its way through the White House. What about enlisting, the internal proposal suggested, the energies of America’s youth as volunteers in the cause of energy conservation? President Carter, in the words of one memo, would “call on youth, their representative organizations, and other interested individuals to become involved in a program of energy awareness and conservation.” President Carter liked the idea. It would help reduce inflation, pollution, and other economic waste. And why not? Greg Schneiders put it: “All the component parts of this program defining the problem, considering alternate solutions, critical analysis, inventorying resources, working together with other youths, and adults, meeting with and petitioning community leaders, learning, teaching, growing–are also the components of good citizenship.
Giving youth a sense of purpose at the community level to ascertain and help reduce energy waste by offering their services to people who want to save energy in their homes and buildings should not be controversial.
But wait! Some bureaucrats at the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) were offended at this invasion of their “turf.” A youth conservation program might lead to an assessment of these agencies’ expenditures and policies on energy conservation in comparison with their handouts for energy producers. With White House encouragement and grass roots activity, these officials could feel watched from both sides. They picked up their phones.
FRIENDLY SOURCES in the media were notified of the White House proposal before it was completed for public announcement. Reporters were told that this could be a youth snooper movement or worse, poking around neighborhoods telling people to turn their lights off or their thermostats down. Instant images were suggested: invasion of privacy, Big Brother, stern youth groups pushing puritanism in lock step formation. Some reporters saw an “easy lead” and jumped on the story. Knee-jerking commentators like Patrick Buchanan, one of Nixon’s last apologists in the White House, wrote lurid distortions of the idea as befits his penchant for fiction. Some editorialists leaped into battle with headlines like “Snoopers for Energy?”
Schneiders, trying to respond, said he felt like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “That was not what I meant, at all; that is not it at all.”
Support for the proposal from volunteer organizations and educators who reviewed a 100-page manual that Schneiders prepared for their commentary received no attention in the press. Enthusiastic teachers sent descriptions of ongoing energy projects and offered their participation. They like the idea of informed youth with experienced supervisors doing something constructive about the nation wasting half of its energy. So would many homeowners and schools welcome this interest and service by young citizens.
Clearly, one of the skills that we have to relearn is how to work together as volunteer citizens in our communities to solve problems or diminish waste. President Ford was ridiculed and mocked — unfairly, I thought — when he started his WIN program to fight inflation. That was an effort to have volunteers and civic groups mobilize to avoid wasteful and excessively priced consumption.
WASHINGTON PUNDITS almost uniformly laughed WIN off as naive and unworkable. Auto and other business executives were furious at the White House for suggesting anything that remotely sounded like consuming less. It was not long before Ford put the WIN effort on the White House’s back burner.
At the Carter White House, there is an air of uncertainty now about encouraging a youth energy conservation program. Some aides think it is too easily pilloried and would be a political liability to have the President inspire such an effort. Others, including Schneiders, believe this is just what the White House should be doing — giving citizen efforts that stand on their own feet some White House visibility and moral support.
President Carter is said to still think it is a good idea. If you think the same way, write him and say so. And ask him how energy efficient the White House is these days.