Bill McKibben's White House Solar Panel Stunt Didn't Help Bill McKibben's White House Solar Panel Stunt Didn't Help
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Bill McKibben's White House Solar Panel Stunt Didn't Help

by Andrew Price

September 19, 2010

Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and founder of 350.org (a GOOD 100 honoree) recently made a bold move. He tracked down a solar water heater panel that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof in the 1970s—they were taken down by Ronald Reagan and ended up at Unity College in Maine—and, along with some students from Unity, took it to the White House to offer to the president. McKibben also brought an offer from a company called Sungevity that was willing to donate a full solar system for the White House.

As McKibben's party made its way from Maine to Washington, D.C., they had just one "nagging concern": They hadn't heard any confirmation from the White House that Obama would see them. In the end, McKibben and company did end up with a meeting, with two unnamed "environmental bureaucrats," but the Carter panel and the Sungevity donation were refused. McKibben related the story in a recent post at TomDispatch:

They refused to accept the Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with the students and the petition they’d brought with them. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point blank said no.

Obviously, the solar panel pilgrimage was designed to generate publicity. McKibben and company could have made sure the White House wanted the solar panels before taking them to Washington. But driving them down, with a crew of idealistic college students, in a school bus powered by vegetable oil, was a way of drawing attention—and maximizing pressure on the White House. Some might even call it exploitative. Mr. President, these children want solar panels. Don't you care about the children?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for rejecting the solar panels.

Buying solar panels is cost prohibitive for most Americans. Putting them on the White House would further the perception that sustainability is out of reach for the average American—and that Obama is out of touch. Urban gardening, by contrast, is much easier for people to do, regardless of income, and the White House has enthusiastically embraced that cause.

Also, by accepting the panels, the White House would be setting a dangerous precedent: that anyone can cruise up to the front door with an innocent, emotionally-charged request, and expect the administration to make time for them.

It's also possible that, amid the myriad demands of running the country, installing symbolic solar panels didn't seem like the highest priority.

Bill McKibben is doing invaluable work for the environment and all of us (and our progeny) owe him a debt of gratitude. But this ploy took time and energy that might have been better spent on the effort to stop Proposition 23 in California, for example.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user 350.org

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Bill McKibben's White House Solar Panel Stunt Didn't Help