Japan's Fukushima disaster, stoking fears we've tried to bury since James Bridges's 1971 epic "The China Syndrome," is a sobering reminder of the fragility of our planet's energy sources. As if on cue, 24-hour cable news studios were filled with experts who lamented our reliance on unsafe nuclear power and dirty fossil fuels. And we, the American people, wrung our hands, wondering why "they" aren't doing anything to fix the problem.
The pattern repeats itself all too often: crisis, followed by a spike in consumer interest in renewable energy and a rapid return to normal, as we hop into our big cars and laze around our energy-guzzling homes. In fact, we lived this pattern just last summer, when the BP oil spill was making huge headlines.
The prevailing belief then, which I shared, was that the spill was a "teachable moment," an opportunity to educate the American people about the impact of our energy use, and to show that we have other energy options. The summer of the gush was oddly encouraging. Public transit systems across the country reported record ridership numbers. Sales of hybrid cars surged. The momentum behind clean, renewable energy was palpable.
Then, at last, the well was capped. The nation breathed a deep sigh of relief, but we paused only momentarily before returning to our old ways.
With the news of our military operations in Libya, the Fukushima story is already through its own catch-and-release consumer interest cycle. We were gripped by the arresting images of devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami, and questioned what our own country's reliance on nuclear power could mean for the safety of future generations. But then we were distracted by something equally weighty and compelling. What did we really learn from Fukushima? And what do we do now that the cameras have moved away?
American consumers have a responsibility to understand the impact of their energy choices. Fukushima should move us to support suppliers and purchasers of clean, safe and renewable energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. This doesn't mean switching to 100 percent solar power, or ceasing all use of nuclear power plants, which do provide 20 percent of all energy we use in the United States. It means balancing our nation's energy portfolio, hedging against risks, uncertainties and rising energy costs over time. You wouldn't wait to buy car insurance until after you've had a crippling accident. So why are we doing the same with our energy priorities?
Solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies are vastly better than they were 30 years ago. And they work. If we as American consumers are truly concerned about what we saw last week in Japan, we need to exercise our purchasing power to support safe, renewable sources of energy.
We can't do this with legislation. Policy makers often bow to the crisis mentality, and even the best energy policy would be subject to the pendulum swing of politics. What we need is to change consumer attitudes on renewable energy. We do this the same way Coca-Cola created a national beverage; we do it the same way Smokey the Bear taught us that only we can prevent forest fires. We do it the way Don Draper and his "Mad Men" got an entire generation to smoke cigarettes. We market it.
If Madison Avenue could get an entire generation to inhale cancer-causing smoke on a daily basis, imagine what they could do if tasked to convince Americans that clean energy actually works. They could make it cool. They could make it chic. They could change the way the American people think about -- and use -- energy, whether or not there's a smoking nuclear reactor on the news.
The Fukushima crisis is a bad one. But we owe it to ourselves to learn from it. Let's work toward America's long-term energy solutions.
Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.