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Framing Clean Tech, China & the US: competition isn’t helpful, but neither is national security

I want to call out Julian Wong (@GreenLeapFwd) on something he said recently that bothered me. He was on the Mid-Morning Report, Minnesota public radio, on 8 February talking about China’s cleantech revolution:

Wong: That’s certainly an angle that my centre, the centre for american progress is pushing, the national security angle. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times, a sign of the current political situation where we’re in the throws of one of the worst economic recessions ever and what’s present on voters minds are the economic woes and how we get ourselves out of this an create new jobs.

He went on to imply, throughout the interview, that the national security, energy security angle was both more useful for understanding China’s cleantech push, but also for making the American public more accepting of China’s cleantech push, rather than seeing it as threatening. He then (ineffectively, and I’ll explain below) went on to draw a parallel between energy security and an improved discourse on cleantech and China.

I want to say that I’ve often asked Mr. Wong for comment on articles, he’s been very helpful and responsive to me, for which I am very appreciative and I respect him and his opinion very much, and much of the time he’s spot on. While he is correct that much of the time pundits unhelpfully frame cleantech in a US versus China, realpolitik, zero-sum game kind of way, Wong said that it’s more helpful to frame it in an energy security issue. This doesn’t seem much of a distinction to me however-- we’re still competing over resources.

The language we use when establishing relationships is very important, as are the cultural values that drive how we do so. By nature, American culture is competitive and because of economic theories like comparative advantage that stem from capitalism’s evolution in the West, competition has become the motivator, the way Americans relate to the world. Without digressing into a discussion of economic revaluation, we need to think about what competition implies: zero sum, real politik, winner take all, survival of the fittest, games, versus; dichotomies inherent in the term are winner and loser, benefits and costs, acquisition and sale, abundance and scarcity, positive and negative.

China cannot win the cleantech revolution because that implies that the US will lose: money, jobs, and resources to China. Energy security as a cleantech discourse is not much different in that it implies a certain selfishness, not needing to be dependent upon others and is abrasively independent-- things that are also implied in competition. To me, the word “security” twinges my neck with fear, it smacks of war (on terror) and threat.

Mr. Wong and others are correct in asserting that the cleantech revolution needn’t be a competition between China and the US and that it would be beneficial to both parties as well as to the global spread of cleantech that the relationship be more of a partnership, a shared development. The competitive mindset will hold back innovation and best practice in production techniques, will likely slow the overall rate cleantech development and implementation, and may even encourage devolution into petty trade wars.

But shared development and partnerships implies dependency-- “national security” implies the opposite. How is it possible that it’s more useful to frame cleantech in China and the US in “national security” rhetoric than competition?

The financial crisis and the climate change issue overlap in that they both demand a revaluation of resources, economically and sociologically, of the same nature. A “green new deal” deals with issues of sustainability in lending practices and wealth creation the same way sustainability necessarily implies more efficient use and distribution of scarce resources. Inherent in the sustainability discourse are these notions of efficiency and distribution which in turn imply the necessity for collectivity and cooperation. But national security is very isolating.

I’m sorry Mr. Wong, but it appears you’ve missed the bear.

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